Making the Pieces Fit in Japan

By Brian Covert
Staff Writer

If there is one hobby Edith Hanson loves, it is putting together jigsaw puzzles: the shaping of seemingly disparate pieces into a greater, cohesive whole.

Her career in Japan, it could be said, has been much the same as Kansai’s most famous “homegrown” foreign celebrity and one of the country’s most prominent human rights advocates.

Be it appearing on the silver screen and television, writing magazine articles and books, or heading the
Japanese section of the London-based Amnesty International human rights organization, Hanson has managed to shape a solid career out of the myriad roles she has played in Japan.

“Now that I’ve reached this stage, people are calling me a ‘pioneer’” among the foreign media stars in Japan, Hanson says laughing. “Hang in there long enough and you’re a pioneer!”

The 53-year-old Hanson, who now lives in the quiet countryside of southern Wakayama Prefecture, has indeed come a long way.

She was born in northern India, where her American missionary father worked, and later moved with her family to the United States. She first came to Japan at age 21 with her brother, a college professor who was on a one-year research program at Osaka University. It was in Osaka, Hanson claims, that she finally found her life’s direction and gained the wings to take her there.

Her wings in the 1960s turned out to be her fluency in
Osaka-ben, the rough, raw-sounding dialect of that traditional city of commerce and trade. Gaining attention in the media for her local accent, she was soon appearing in movies and on stage, often with some of the biggest acting names in Japanese show business.

“Fujiyama Kanbi, Miyako Chocho, Ryu Chishu — I started right off there with a bang with all those great pros,” Hanson recalls. “They were all very good to me. I learned a lot.”

After stints as a television personality and writer, in the late 1970s she began devoting herself to more serious issues: joining a small Japanese chapter of Amnesty International and participating in the group’s activities of writing letters on behalf of “prisoners of conscience” worldwide.

In 1986 she became chairperson of Amnesty’s entire Japanese section. Her presence in the organization is generally credited with giving Amnesty International the visibility and respectability it needed to help it grow in Japan.

The human rights group now has about 10,000 members nationwide — a long way from the thousand or so when Hanson first joined but still disappointingly low, she feels, when compared to membership rates in other industrialized countries.

“The Japanese government needs to ratify a lot more international human rights treaties,” she adds. “They also need to be a little more careful about where and how they grant overseas aid and development funds, to check out the human rights situations in the countries they’re supporting.”

And despite Amnesty’s unconditional opposition to the death penalty the world over, Hanson says she was caught by surprise by the sudden hanging in April of three Japanese death-row inmates after a three-year absence of executions.

“It was a shock,” she said. “…In the end, it means that the law has to be changed. Awareness has to be changed” on the death penalty and other such issues in Japan.

When she is not in Tokyo attending to Amnesty activities as a volunteer, she can be found mostly lecturing and making a few public media appearances to support herself and her family.

But what she says she loves most is simply relaxing at home with her husband in the rural Wakayama community of Nakahechi-cho. And, of course, constructing jigsaw puzzles — not unlike the kind that her varied career in Japan has turned out to be.