Serene and regal, her image stalks me from ad posters plastered all over the walls of almost every commuter train station I pass through. She’s always photographed against iconic Japanese backgrounds: a serene temple surrounded by deer and cherry blossom trees, a ryokan inn heated by the steam of a nearby hot spring. Sometimes the posters are small, clustered in groups of fives, and sometimes, as in the Osaka and Kyoto hub stations, they are giant; so large that her chin is at the bottom of the escalator and the crown of her short black hair is at the top. By the middle of the ride up I can look into her eyes; jet-black and gentle. She, unlike the prepubescent American models I’m used to, must be in her 50s and is so beautiful that I can never look away. She is quite literally the poster child for the gorgeous middle-aged Japanese woman; the kind I teach who have inspired me to drink green tea by the gallon. Her skin is fresh and radiant, accented by faint creases framing her mouth and eyes. These creases, I might add, are proudly visible, not airbrushed away. This impresses me even more. I don’t know who she is, but I must find out.
Even after 2 years in Japan, Japanese media is still very much a closed community to me. I rarely watch TV or movies. I only flip through magazines at doctors’ offices. I’ve learned who a handful of Japanese celebrities are through osmosis and reading the news, the way I did back home, so by now I’ve learned that SMAP is 1/5th attractive and the Kana sisters are filthy. For the most part, though, those grinning faces in the coffee and breath mint ads remain strangers to me. Obviously, the ubiquitous and radiant train station ad model must be the spokesperson for some massive Japanese ad campaign but my Japanese isn’t good enough to completely understand the ad copy. Thus, both the product she’s selling and her name are a mystery.
Her gaze follows me as I refill my ride card and watches me knowingly as I slurp ika udon at a train station noodle stand. She’s imploring me to do something but what? Buy stylish yet modest clothing? Appreciate Japan’s natural beauty? Think like a Japanese woman and wear SPF 50? I somehow feel compelled to do whatever she asks. I stare at the writing on the ad, picking out a few place names and phrases with grammar beyond my level. Soon Nara will close to you? For your family’s summer do ___ and ____? One day, while waiting for the Semi-Express train to whisk me to work, I notice the kanji for Kintetsu. So she’s a model for Kintetsu? But Kintetsu is a train company and in these ads, there are no trains in sight.
I ask Sean if he knows who she is. We are standing on the train platform, heading to Tsuruhashi in Osaka for yakiniku, and a large poster of the mystery woman is right across from us. Tonight, she is stiffly bound in a plum-colored yukata, sitting in seiza at a tea ceremony. Her half-smile is that of a Madonna.
“Her?” Sean growls. “Lord, I hate that woman.”
I’m shocked. “Hate … her?” I sputter. “How? She seems so lovely and kind.”
“She’s evil,” snorts Sean. “Her eyes. She’s so smug. And these rubbish posters are all over the bloody place. Just look at her, like!”
I look. I see only placid wisdom and the luminous honest beauty I want when I myself am 50.
I choose to ignore Sean, who is doubtless drunk, and take a radical second step in learning the woman’s identity: asking my students. Normally, I wouldn’t do this unless I was desperate as I’ve learned all too well that the cardinal rule in teaching English as a Second Language is to never believe a word your students say. If I were to take my students at their word, I’d have to believe that they molest their pets (“I like to touch animals”), hang out with high school kids (“I go to drink with high school students,” = “I’m hanging out with old friends from high school”) and send their children to learn kendo from men who bite them for making mistakes. My students have sent me to 6 different supermarkets in search of Pillsbury-style refrigerated cookie dough (that doesn’t exist) and have also told me that their infant sons defecate each time they laugh. No, I never trust the students but this time, my curiosity is too intense to ignore. After all, the ad campaign is so widespread that surely one of them must be able to piece together, “model,” “Kintetsu,” and “who?”
Naturally, the first person I ask is Nakata-san. I imagine it will be one-stop shopping since his English is good enough to understand the question and he’s always so keen to boast that he knows everything. When I ask him, I am surprised – and, yet, not surprised – that Nakata-san can’t help me after all. Why? Because Nakata-san is too rich; he never takes public transportation so he’s never seen the ads. Of course.
I ask some other students on Thursday, all of who seem to be stuck on, “Who is the model who …?” despite the fact that we learned that grammar last week. Then I ask a group of “Intermediates.” Miho is stuck on, “posters in the train station,” Yuki is 16 and doesn’t know any celebrity over the age of 30 but Kenji gives me my first clue.
“I don’t know,” he says. “But maybe Takeshita Keiko. She is Kintetsu model.”
“Asoka!!” Miho’s face floods with recognition and relief. “So so so so so … Takeshita Keiko. She is actress.”
“Is she a TV actress or a movie actress? Is she very famous?” I ask. Kenji is not sure but Miho is “pretty sure” that Takeshita Keiko used to be on TV. They both assure me that she is famous and, yes, probably in her 50s.
On Friday, Mika tells me that 20 years ago, Takeshita Keiko was on a quiz show and “maybe” a samurai drama. Nobuya tells me that he knows who she is but doesn’t think she is that all that special. By the time I see Nakata-san the next week, I am armed with facts and need only to mention the name, “Takeshita Keiko” before Nakata-san puffs up with satisfaction.
“Ahh, Takeshita Keiko,” he says. “Yes, she is very, very famous actress. She is model for Kintetsu. You will see that every poster has scenery from Mie prefecture, which is last stop on Kintetsu line.”
“Ohhhh!” I sigh. Not clothes for the stylish grandmother. Not a campaign to inspire the Japanese to embrace their traditions. Train travel. I suppose I could have figured it out myself had I not been blinded by the beatific light beaming from Takeshita-san’s expression.
“She is for ordinary people,” continues Nakata-san. “Ordinary people who ride train and go to shrine in Mie. Boring!” He guffaws lustily.
“So why did they choose Takeshita Keiko-san for their model, do you think?” I ask.
“Once upon a time,” begins Nakata-san, using the phrase he’s adopted since I broke him of the habit of saying Such a time, “Ordinary people thought Takeshita Keiko was Japan’s ‘ideal wife.’ Every man wanted to marry her.”
Nakata-san chortles. “Not me,” he said. “But ordinary people like her and ordinary people ride trains to go to boring shrine so Kintetsu chose her for their campaign.”
“I see.” I’ve developed a rule that if Nakata-san says the phrase “ordinary people,” more than 3 times I must change the subject to keep my annoyance from showing on my face. We begin to discuss his upcoming New Year’s trip to Switzerland.
“Yes, Switzerland,” he says. “My wife and I will stay in 6 star hotel and eat caviar.”
“How lovely,” I reply.
So the woman in the train station posters is Takeshita Keiko. She was once Japan’s Sweetheart and a famous television actress. She’s advertising trips to the Kintetsu line’s furthest point. And so far, no one seems to agree with me that her beauty is breathtaking. In fact, when I mention how beautiful I think she is, my students look surprised.
“She is so natural,” I insist. “She is in her 50s but she is a model. She is stylish but not trendy. In America, our 50 year-old actresses try to look 20 and they always hide their wrinkles. I like her because she she seems so kind and she is beautiful without hiding her age.”
“I don’t think she is so beautiful,” says Miyabi. “But I like her meaning.”
I tell Sean that I have discovered the identity of the woman in the ubiquitous train station ads, as well as what she’s selling.
“Kintetsu trips to Mie? I could have told you that,” Sean grumbles.
But he didn’t and by now, internet searches have revealed that, for once, my students aren’t talking nonsense. I’ve found photos and interviews which tell me that Takeshita Keiko was considered to be “the perfect wife” because of the strength, gentleness and intelligence that I see in her face every day in the train station. While I technically belong to the young set, I’m nonetheless looking forward and would consider myself a lucky woman indeed if, at 50, my face could still amaze a woman half that age. Without wearing trashy clothes. Without dating a himbo. Without french kissing a starlet. Without surgery and photo tricks. What a country, I marvel. They might no longer treat their elders like royalty but at least they can appreciate beauty of all ages.
On Saturdays, I teach a group class of Pre-Intermediates. Naoko is studying English literature at Kyoto University, Taro is a sales rep, Shoko is a Takeshita Keiko-esque radiant grandmother and Junko is an office worker. I like to tease Junko for working too much overtime but I don’t know exactly what she does.
By now, I know enough about Takeshita Keiko to feel satisfied but am still curious for more opinions about her character. So I ask Naoko, Taro, Shoko and Junko what they think. Taro is old enough to remember when Takeshita Keiko was Japan’s Sweetheart and grins broadly when I mention her. Shoko is neutral, Naoko doesn’t know who she is and Junko …
Junko is the graphic designer who retouched the most visible wrinkles on all of Takeshita Keiko’s Kintetsu ads.