Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Mystery Of Merii of Hama And The Birth Of 'Yokohama Rosa'

Merii of Hama on the streets of Yokohama. Circa 1990.

"What? What’s my name? I’ve long forgotten my real name. But people call me all sorts of names. Like Merii of Hama, Mary, ‘Merican Li’l or Rosa. But Rosa is my favorite of all." – Yokohama Rosa

Nearly 15 years ago, Japan’s legendary TV/film/stage actress Michiko Godai encountered Merii-san on the streets of Yokohama (Japan’s second largest city just outside of Tokyo), roaming around with her oversized rolling suitcase and face painted as white as fresh snow. On first sight, Godai wanted to learn more about the mysterious woman. Who was she? Where did she come from? What was her story?

Godai began her investigation by searching for the makeup store where Merii-san bought her white face paint. She learned that Merii-san once fancied expensive American brand makeup products, but with her dwindling savings, the shop owner introduced her to a 500 yen stage paint which ended up becoming her signature look, together with thick kabuki-like eyeliner.

Godai then found the dry cleaner that laundered Meri-san’s frilly white dresses and would kindly allow her to change in the store before returning to the streets, the hair salon that styled her hair until their clients requested that she no longer be allowed in, and the café that held a rose cup just for her use so as not to alienate the other customers.

Godai, together with the late playwright Giho Sugiyama, strung these stories carefully together like beads on a chain, and the powerful one-woman play Yokohama Rosa was born. 

“Through Rosa, I want to depict Japan’s postwar history and convey it (to future generations),” Godai told the Asahi Shimbun about why she created the play. Since its premiere in April 1996 at the Mitsukoshi Theatre in Tokyo, the piece has been presented 110 times to more than 51,000 people. Beginning in 2003, the piece has been performed each August in Yokohama’s Red Brick Warehouse in commemoration of the end of WWII.

Having its U.S. premiere this weekend as part of Japan Society's Stories from the War series marking the 70th anniversary of the war's end, Godai said, “A war produces tragedies regardless of whether a country wins or loses it... I want Americans to see 'Yokohama Rosa' as a message to pray for peace.”

Michiko Godai portrays Merii over the decades. Photos by © Hideo Mori.

Details of Merii-san’s early life are vague and inconclusive, as she never let down her guard to tell anyone her true story. Merii-san’s Japanese Wikipedia page states that:
She was born in 1921 in Okayama Prefecture to a farming family. The oldest daughter of eight, she was married just briefly. After the war she worked at a local food joint that catered to foreign soldiers. It was there where she met and fell in love with a U.S. Army Official who whisked her off to Tokyo before getting drafted into the Korean War, never to return. Abandoned and forlorn, she turned towards Yokosuka (home of the Yokosuka naval base) in Yokohama, where she began her life as a pan-pan [the word in occupied Japan for prostitute*]. Some records say this was the early 60s, others the mid-50s. She began garnering real attention in the 80s, then disappeared in the mid-90s. She was said to have died in a nursing home near her hometown in 2005 at the age of 84. Numerous songs, manga, films and even a novel and poem exist, inspired by her story.
In 1995, Michiko Godai visited the GM Building where former pan-pan Merii-san (then in her seventies) dwelled and “worked” as a so-called Elevator Girl, escorting people up and down to the floors they wished to go. The tips that she made were now her only source of income. Godai explained to Merii-san that she would like to do a one-woman play about her life and according to Godai she smiled and said, “Is that so?”

Godai’s Yokohama Rosa is a fictionalized account inspired by the woman who came to be known as Merii-san. The 100 minute play traces the life of a woman known as Yokohama Rosa from the time she arrives in Yokohama, through her journey into prostitution, to her love-affair with a foreign soldier and her fears and insecurities about time moving on and her own aging.

The play depicts an innocent life completely tossed and turned by war (in this play not only is WWII considered, but also the wars in Korea and Vietnam) and is performed with live musicians and a panoramic display of striking images from the times. Part post-war history lesson, part testament to the perseverance of the human spirit, Merri-san's story, and the story of all women she represents, lives on through Michiko Godai's heartrending performance in this poignant production.

--Lara Mones

Merii of Hama on the streets of Yokohama. Circa 1990.

*Pan-pan (pronounced pahn-pahn, unknown origin) n. 1. The word for street walker or prostitute used in Japan at the end of WWII. (Kojien); 2. Prostitutes who catered to the Occupied Troops. At the end of WWII, the terms pan-pan girl and pan-suke emerged to describe the prostitutes who appeared on the streets and who specifically worked for the GI troops in Occupied Japan. While the origins of the word are uncertain, some believe it to have come from the English word “pom-pom” meaning sex, while others, the American pronunciation of the Indonesian word for woman “Perem-paun” (pronounced purom pan). Still others believe that it came from the onomatopoeia “pen-pen” describing the shamisen (aka geishas). Whatever its origin, the word that the GIs used became “pan-pan” when it eventually reached the years of the Japanese. (Zokugo); 3. Today, the word or sound “pan-pan” is a commonly used adjective meaning full or to be stretched tight. Via.


Shiroi Kao no Densetsu wo Motomete: Yokohama kara Yokohama Rosa he no Deshin, Michiko Godai

Yokohama Rosa, Giho Sugiyama and Michiko Godai

Yokohama Merii (film), Takayuki Nakamura

Kojien Dictionary and zokugo-dict.com


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