A WELL-TRAVELED CHILDHOOD LEADS TO A REMARKABLE CAREER AS THE VOICE OF MANY CLUB PRESS EVENTS
As the economist makes his point about the Bank of Japan’s quantitative easing steps and shifts in the macro economic fundamentals, Tamako Takamatsu is serenity personified. She effortlessly talks the listening journalists through the complicated assessments of the impact of Abenomics, national balance sheet projections and fluctuations in the yen exchange rate.
After she has finished jumping through both linguistic and financial hoops for the 90-minute press conference and we sit down in the bar, she leans in conspiratorially and says, “I have such respect for the journalists of the Club. You take all those ramblings and turn them into a coherent story. I don’t know how you do it.”
I am dumbfounded.
But I quickly learn that Takamatsu whom I fear does not receive nearly the recognition that she deserves, and would probably deflect any applause should it be offered has a number of other skills that she has kept quiet.
‘IT’S FRIGHTENING TO ME THAT SO FEW PEOPLE IN THIS NATION OF 130 MILLION ARE ABLE TO SPEAK ENGLISH..’
Born in Tokyo, she moved as an infant to Denmark, where her father was working as a theoretical physicist at the Niels Bohr Institute. The family lived in Copenhagen for two years, then relocated to Berkeley in California for a further year before returning to Japan.
The family was soon on the move again. Takamatsu spent her first five school grades in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where her father was again engrossed in his nuclear research. After a summer back in Japan, it was off to Austin, Texas, and then high school in Chicago.
“The only things at school that I had any aptitude for were the piano and math. I never really understood or liked math, but I think I was able to interpret the teachers’ emphasis and always knew what would be in the tests,” she said. “I think I had aptitude, not wisdom.”
She studied piano for three years at Oberlin College, near Cleveland. The plan after graduation was to spend a year off in Tokyo in 1978 before going on to graduate school and becoming a college piano teacher, but we can thank James Clavell for the career change.
“Towards the end of my last year in college I read Clavell’s Shogun and found myself admiring his capacity to make Japanese people easier for foreigners to understand,” she said.
Takamatsu was making ends meet by translating at conferences when she received a call from the composer Seiji Ozawa, a distant relative, who asked if she could interpret for his manager from Columbia Artists Management. The two hit it off and Takamatsu was subsequently asked to be the Japan end of the company’s global operations. This enabled her to work with some of the greats of classical music, from the pianist Vladimir Horowitz to conductor Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
She kept up a punishing schedule as a translator and in public relations for the next decade managing to fit in marriage and the arrival of two sons before deciding she needed a break. Stepping back from work, the family moved to Osaka shortly before the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. Two years later, they returned to Tokyo.
Although Takamatsu did not want to go back to work full time, she did want something to keep her busy. “And then I realized that that only thing I could do was be an interpreter,” she said.
“I have very mixed feelings about interpreting,” she admits. “I also teach in an interpreting school and I hope that I will be among the last generations of interpreters.
“Japanese people have to be more proficient in English,” she said. “They have to be able to at least read a newspaper in English and not have to wait for it to be translated for them. It’s frightening to me that so few people in this nation of 130 million people are able to speak English.”
As well as working at the FCCJ and teaching interpreting skills, Takamatsu has built a reputation that enables her to work for companies that range from airlines to international finance firms, railways, pharmaceuticals manufacturers and more. Every day, she says, is different.
Some are harder than others, and the press conference at the Club with the mother and brother of Shosei Koda in October 2004 is one that remains embedded in her memory.
Koda had been kidnapped by militants after naively crossing the border from Jordan into Iraq. His captors demanded that Japan withdraw its troops immediately or they would execute him; Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rejected the ultimatum.
Immediately after the press conference, Takamatsu said she was shaking. She could hardly stop crying as she identified with the young man’s mother so closely. The following day, the militants decapitated Koda, and footage of the beheading was released over the internet.
Days like that are thankfully rare. Takamatsu said that the ideal press conference is one in which the speaker and the audience strike up a rapport or relationship that flows easily, to the point that the participants hardly even notice that their conversation is being relayed through a third party.
Being around journalists so frequently has encouraged Takamatsu to write, particularly after a 3,500 word short story she wrote for ANA’s in flight magazine won first prize and earned her and her husband a trip to Paris.
“A part of me has always wanted to be a novelist,” she said. “I never thought that I could write, but I like it and I want to get across an explanation of Japanese people to foreigners so we don’t seem so strange.
“The way that Japanese people are portrayed is so often only related to money, sex or strange things. Correspondents who are based here understand that we are three dimensional people,” she said. “But I fear that readers in other countries don’t see us like that.”
Takamatsu hopes her novel will set out to correct some of those errors although, she feels, “‘She wanted to write’ will be engraved on my tombstone.”
Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.