Around the dinner table over the New Year holiday, in my wife’s family home not far from the Isezakicho district, I discovered that I was the only one the table who hadn’t seen Yokohama Mary, in person. I’d recently seen the documentary, and posters, and photographs around town, so my interest in this legendary local personality was piqued. Arguably the most famous person in town, It might not be an exaggeration to say that everyone in Yokohama, from the early post-war period, all the way until the ’90s, has seen or met Yokohama Mary. By the time I’d started visiting Japan in the mid-1990s, Mary had vanished.
Who was she? Where did she come from? What was her real identity? These and other questions have been explored in books, magazines, the 2006 documentary, and newspaper articles, one of which appeared in the December 23rd edition of The Japan Times.
Masami Ito writes: An enigmatic woman wearing a frilly white dress stands silently outside Matsuzakaya department store in Yokohama’s Isezakicho district during a local festival. Her face is caked in white makeup and her eyes are lined in black.
The same woman wearing the same white dress and makeup stands near an elevator in the GM Building in the backstreets of Isezakicho, where she would collect tips in exchange for pressing buttons for customers as they make their way to their appointments.
She later sits her belongings and sleeps in a corridor of the same building. At other times, she dozes on a wooden chair, upon which a cushion bears a hand-scratched expression of love in what seems to be Japanese and Chinese.
The etching reads, “I love you Ms. Meri.”
The above images are included in an award-winning 2006 documentary by Takayuki Nakamura on one of Yokohama’s most well-known personalities: “Yokohama Mary.”
Mary has over the years almost become something of an urban legend. Many locals either knew of the homeless woman’s existence and some had even seen her, but no one really seemed to know anything about her.
Some say she was a former “pan-pan” girl, a street prostitute who served American soldiers during the Allied Occupation of postwar Japan. Outside of that, however, little is known about Mary’s background.
Rumor has it that she once appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Others have argued that she wasn’t homeless at all, but lived in luxurious accommodation in the expensive district of Yamate.
It has even been said that Mary was a descendent of the Imperial family, with some calling the woman “Her Majesty.”
Nakamura, a Yokohama native, first ran into Mary when he was in junior high school. At the time, he was on his way to see a movie.
“I was shocked when I first saw her,” Nakamura recalls. “With her face painted white and being so still, from a distance I thought she was a statue. After that, it became quite normal to see her around. … It’s not like I would talk to her or interact with her in any way, but whenever I went into the city, she would always be there.”
In 1995, however, she suddenly disappeared. Locals thought she had probably died or had gone back to her hometown — supposedly in either Ibaraki, Fukushima or Hiroshima prefecture — and checked into a nursing home. However, no one knew what really happened to her.
Nakamura likens Mary’s presence in the area to the statue of Hachiko near Tokyo’s Shibuya Station.
“If Hachiko disappears one day without warning, everyone would be flummoxed because the statue’s presence is so natural,” he says. “Her disappearance was that shocking. I started my documentary out of pure curiosity — I just wanted to know what kind of person Mary was.”
Nakamura was 22 when he began working on his documentary. He spent a couple of years researching the history of Yokohama, from the arrival of the black ships and the opening of Yokohama to foreign trade in the 19th century to postwar Yokohama.
In his book “Yokohama Mary,” which was published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishers in August, Nakamura focuses on the history of prostitution in the area.
The book provides details on the chabuya, which catered to foreign men as a bar, cabaret, dance hall and brothel as well as the Recreation and Amusement Association (organized brothels for the Occupation forces) and the so-called pan-pan girls that hit the streets after the RAA was closed down in 1946.
In his book, Nakamura notes that there were rumors of how Mary used to work at an RAA facility in Kobe before moving to Kanagawa Prefecture … (read more)
Source: Japan Times