A Conversation with Edith Hanson

Japan’s entertainment market over the years may have become flooded with fluent Japanese-speaking foreign talents eager to make their mark, but few such celebrities command as much respect and recognition among the Japanese as Edith Hanson. Hanson, 54, is renowned for being among the first major overseas celebrities to make it big in Japan — and moreover, as “the foreigner who speaks Osaka-ben.”

Her fairy tale-like rise to stardom and then as a human rights advocate began in the early 1960s when she arrived in Osaka. She delved into the local dialect and began attracting media attention for her fluency; soon she was one of the biggest names in Japanese entertainment, She also penned her own Japanese column in the magazine Shukan Bunshun and later published several books.

At Waseda University in the late ’70s she attended a chapter meeting of the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International. Hansen joined, and her celebrity status won the group the visibility and respectability it needed in Japan. She became vice-chairperson in 1981, moving up to the head of Amnesty International Japan by 1986.

A year later she traded the bright city lights for the tranquility of rural Japan. She still resides in a small mountain village in Wakayama Prefecture, where she lives with her Japanese “househusband.”

Osaka-based journalist
Brian Covert recently met with Hanson on her old Naniwa home turf, where he discovered that amid her more serious commitments, Hanson hasn’t lost that quick comic chuckle and movie-star smile.

Main Title

BRIAN COVERT: Let’s begin with your career in Japanese show-biz. How did that come about?

EDITH HANSON: Oh, by accident — you know those things always are. I guess maybe because my first husband was a Bunraku puppeteer and it was considered very unusual for a foreigner to marry a person of that profession. So there were all sorts of interviews at that time and it was there that they discovered I spoke the Osaka dialect. So this was another unusual thing, and things gradually went from there.

BC: What was it like being one of the first foreign “talents” in Japan? What were some of your most memorable experiences?

EH: Maybe making a movie with Fujiyama Kanbi (Aoi-me no Hanayome-san, “The Blue-Eyed Bride,” in 1964). That was my first movie work, a main role, not a cameo appearance, though I knew nothing about acting or movie techniques. Fujiyama Kanbi, Miyako Chocho and Ryu Chishu, who died recently — I started off right there with a bang, with all those great pros.

BC: Does using Osaka-ben have anything to do with the Osaka people and culture, or was it just the first language you picked up?

EH: It’s probably mostly because it was the first. Had I first lived in, say, Tohoku or Kyushu, I’d be speaking those accents. I feel lucky, though, to have first lived in Kansai because it’s such as rich area, a mixture of old stuff and new stuff, and not quite the pressure cooker that Tokyo is. Osaka’s a big metropolis with a hometown feel. When I was doing a lot of TV and “tarento” work [I found that] Osaka people all know each other — like all the Manzai and Rakugo people know all the actors and actresses. It’s like one big family…Osaka people love language, and they love saying things in a humorous way, with a humorous twist. And if it goes over well, they’ll say it again and again [laughs] — just really munching and mauling it and enjoying it. I’m that kind of person too, so I like that!

BC: Why did you give up show business to devote yourself as a full-time human rights activist?

EH: Oh, I didn’t give anything up [laughs] and I’m not full time. It’s sort of a hodgepodge of both. I didn’t give up show business; it’s just that I moved to the country, which was much more important than appearing so many times a week on TV. And Amnesty is like all these other volunteer outfits: If you don’t say “no” you find yourself getting in deeper and deeper. So it wasn’t that I gave something up and switched; it’s just the way things happened.

BC: In your eyes, how does Japan rate on human rights issues among countries in the world? What do you see as the biggest problems?

EH: I couldn’t begin to assign a rank, and I don’t think it’s all that constructive a thing to do. No matter how good a country is, there’s always something to be changed. If you think of what’s happening in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then Japan’s in great shape. But you don’t want to put that as a standard to judge other countries by. Nobody [in Japan] has to worry about being arrested by the Secret Police for saying something. But then, take the issue of women’s rights. And the problems faced by the “buraku” people. Citizens are still being penalized because their ancestors were “burakumin.” And the Ainu — the same thing in Hokkaido. It’s endless, you can find all sorts of problems.

The Japanese government needs to ratify a lot more international human rights treaties. They need to be a little more careful about where and how they grant overseas aid development funds — to check out the human rights situation in the countries they’re supporting. A lot of work needs to be done for foreigners who have come to work in Japan. The Koreans, also, born and raised in Japan.

BC: If Amnesty’s own record is to be believed, just the simple act of writing letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience can make the difference between life and death in many cases. Are things getting better as far as those campaigns go?

EH: In many cases, yes. Because when Amnesty started, everyone would write letters, but if Amnesty actually wanted to go to a certain country to investigate humans rights issues, in many instances they were refused entry and even dialogue with the government. But this has changed a great deal. Much more attention is paid to Amnesty reports.

Letter writing is not something that has an effect overnight; it’s an accumulated thing. It’s gotta go on for a long time, constantly being publicized. But it does work because the percentage of prisoners eventually being released has risen from two-thirds to almost three-quarters.

But you never know for sure what caused their release…When you stop and think, “What would have happened if no letters had gone at all? Would the person still be in prison? Would the person still be being tortured, or be dead?”…The people that Amnesty works for, they’re not really famous people like Nelson Mandela or Kim Dae Jung or Andrei Sakharov or Aung San Suu Kyi. Most of the people, nobody’s ever even heard of. So if Amnesty didn’t do something, nobody would be doing anything.

BC: Looking ahead, what can everyday people in Japan and other countries do — not just for Amnesty, but for human rights in general — to endure that future generations don’t have the same problems we do?

EH: First of all, if you want to work for human rights and be a concerned person, you need lots of imagination [laughs]. And use it all the time! “What if that were my family? What if it were happening to me? How would I feel?” This is very important. That, plus doing your best to develop a sense of fairness that you should apply constantly in your own life. That’s the first step, I think. And not to say, “Oh well, it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is. Sho ga nai.” No, no, that’s no right. There are standards [of fairness] that are internationally recognized, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the United Nations [in December 1948], all the countries present said: “This is the standard.” This is it in the Kalahari Desert, this is it in Roppongi, this is it wherever. It’s not just you being a dreamy-eyed idealist. You’ve got a good backing for your idealism. You’re not just out on a limb spinning fairy tales.

Brian Covert is an American journalist, currently working as staff writer for the Mainichi Daily News newspaper in Osaka and as regional correspondent for the Tokyo bureau of UPI news service. He is devoted to the Kansai area and promoting its internationalization.