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Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010

Voice of the times bridges cultures for seven decades

Ichiro Urushibara's amazing resume rich with diversity


Special to The Japan Times

Most of us would probably be happy to have a handful of memories to reminisce over in our later years, episodes from our youth we could run past our friends while hoping their eyes don't glaze over. Ichiro Urushibara, a British citizen who has spent 69 years in Japan, has enough memories and amusing anecdotes to entertain people for hours and keep them coming back for more.

News photo
Bridging the gap: British citizen and Tokyo interpreting icon Ichiro Urushibara relaxes at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in downtown Tokyo, of which he has been a member since 1964. BARBARA BAYER PHOTO

His employment history reads like a Wikipedia page of significant organizations and companies of postwar Japan: Civil Censorship Detachment, Time-Life International, Otani Insurance, USIS, U.S. Embassy, Foreign Reports Tokyo, Hill & Knowlton. The page listing freelance stints is just as impressive: Nippon Shortwave Broadcasting Co., Radio Nippon, Tokyo Broadcasting System, Pioneer Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and the Lower House of the Diet.

"If somebody were to ask me what I did for a living in those days I would say I did translation, I did radio disc jockey-type work, I emceed parties, I announced car races. I did simultaneous interpreting at political conferences and consecutive interpreting for executives."

He attributes his ability to take on this seemingly wildly diverse work to his interests and hobbies. Building radio sets as a boy led to radio work. An interest in cars allowed him to do interpreting for Toyota and to do highly technical translation, as did his keen interest in cameras, model railways, boats, "all things mechanical." A high school dropout, Urushibara admits to not having any special training in translation or interpretation. "It's the story of my life. I never put any special effort into anything," he says unpersuasively.

Urushibara says he never looked for work. It always came to him. "I was very fortunate." Good fortune and the fact that there were "far fewer bilingual people back in 1958" are what he sees as the reasons he had a near constant flow of work. That and being able to maintain his English after coming to Japan at the age of 10 and being forced to take a near-literal survival course in Japanese.

Urushibara was born to Japanese parents in London in 1930. His father, a woodblock artist, went to England as part of the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910. His father liked the city so much he stayed on and he was very well-received. A portfolio of the elder Urushibara's prints sent to Sir Winston Churchill in 1940 elicited a personal letter of thanks. "We'll bring it to Sotheby's when we're really down and out and see what they can do with it," Urushibara says and laughs heartily.

Toward the end of 1940, the Japanese in England were "asked that they might leave." Urushibara and his family boarded a Japanese ship from Galway Bay at the end of October 1940. Though the Atlantic was swarming with German U-boats, "we had some sort of guarantee of free passage as Japan had already entered into the Axis with Germany and Italy," Urushibara explains. "There were Japanese flags painted on the ship and great big lights shining on the flags so a trigger-happy U-boat captain wouldn't mistake us for an Allied ship. Nonetheless, we slept with our life jackets on."

They traveled via Bermuda to New York City. Seven decades later, he remembers his first impressions of the great metropolis. "There were lights galore, lots of ice cream and no rationing.

"Two months and eight days later, we arrived in Yokohama. It was Jan. 8, 1941." Urushibara stepped onto Japanese soil for the first time. He couldn't speak a word of Japanese.

He was a quick study, though. "You had to be." It was thanks to his sister attending Sacred Heart International School that he was able to maintain his English, which he speaks flawlessly with a posh British accent. Even though "the language of the enemy" was "frowned upon" outside, the Urushibara siblings conversed in English at home.

The fact that Urushibara spoke fluent English and held dual citizenship at the time was something "we didn't talk about." Looking "reasonably Japanese," he jokes, kept the heat off him at school. "They gave me a hard time sometimes. 'You haven't got the samurai spirit' and all that," he remembers.

Urushibara was in London during the German bombing. In Tokyo, he was on the receiving end of the Americans. "I remember the March 10 bombing when 100,000 people are supposed to have died. We'd been living in Setagaya and we'd look toward downtown Tokyo and see that the skies were red. Then in April and May the bombings were near our area. I think it was May 25 and we thought 'we'd better get out of here.' We started walking and then looked around and saw we were surrounded by red skies. So we said, 'What the hell, we might as well go back home' and we just stayed there."

Incendiary bombs destroyed all the houses from just three doors down. Other bombs dropped immediately next door and another fell on their property, but the Urushibaras miraculously survived. Even then, Urushibara's hobbies served him well. Due to power outages, reports of approaching bombers were often only to be had from the battery-operated sets the young radio enthusiast had built. "I would be able to hear the radio warnings of where the enemy bombers were. 'They are now approaching Sagami Bay. They are now over Mount Fuji heading toward Tokyo.' I'd shout this news to the neighbors."

After the war, his family couldn't afford to allow Urushibara to continue with high school. Instead, he got a job with the Occupation. He worked in the Civil Censorship Detachment poring over publications. "MacArthur had a press code. 'Thou shall not speak ill of the Allied powers. Thou shall not preach communist doctrine.' Anything we felt infringed on the press code we were to pick out and translate."

His first attempt to break into radio came in 1955. It was thwarted by NHK. "I was about to get the job when they saw that I didn't have a college degree." Nonetheless, he was later welcomed at other stations and went on to work in both radio and television for more than two decades, much of it under the pseudonym Ken Tajima.

Among his many stints were the news in English for Nippon Shortwave Broadcasting in 1957 and a five-year live disc-jockey-cum-talk show from 1963 in a booth overlooking Ginza for six days a week. At the height of Beatle mania, Urushibara (a big band, swing fan himself) remembers commenting that though he liked the Beatles' songs, he "never did really like their style." A few days after his comment Urushibara received a postcard from an apparent Beatle fan "with a picture of a hand holding a knife that said. 'We will be going to Tokyo on our school graduation, and I'm going to kill you!' "

In 1980, he was invited to interpret for Diet delegations to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organization set up in 1889 by British and French parliamentarians to resolve international disputes through arbitration. It was a relationship that continued for 18 years and took him the world over attending statutory and specialized conferences.

Urushibara interpreted at talks in Pyongyang in the early 1980s, and he remembers in Cuba taking turns interpreting half-hour segments of Fidel Castro's 2 1/2-hour speech "without any text." The American observers, he says, walked out during Castro's tirade. "The CIA have ruined our tobacco crop! The CIA have ruined our sugar exports!" The IPU conferences, as well as extensive travel with Toyota, took Urushibara "to 51 countries."

Although Urushibara doesn't see it as a factor in his getting work, he was always eager to try something new. If someone came along with a proposal, he was receptive. "Sure, I'll take a crack at it." This attitude, coupled with his witty humor and ready laugh were crowd-pleasers. "My wife would dispute that," he says. "I'm always flying off the handle, jumping on people and shouting." He met his wife, Yuko, while they were both working at the U.S. Embassy. The couple will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in November.

It would seem that Urushibara never turned down an opportunity. "Sometimes I did," he says. "I was doing commercials in English and Nissan Motor wanted me to do a commercial that was grammatically wrong. I refused to do it," he says, and adds with a laugh, "I haven't heard from them since."

The Apollo space program brought more work, some of his "most exciting ever." Urushibara was asked to do live interpreting of the Apollo 8 television broadcast and was asked back for all the shots through Apollo 17. "I think I was well-received because I was the only one doing immediate conversion into metric," he says modestly. He also did interpreting inside and outside the ring for foreign pro wrestlers and helped with the contract negotiations for the 1976 fight between Antonio Inoki and Muhammad Ali. "I have a pair of signed boxing trunks from Ali," he says with the nonchalance of a pro.

For 12 years starting in 1978, Urushibara served as the commodore of the Yokohama Yacht Club, Japan's oldest yachting club. "Someone nominated me and I said, "Sure!' " He bought his first boat in 1963, thinking to beat the bad roads and save time getting from Tokyo to Enoshima. "It'd take about three hours and consumed about 100 liters of petrol." However, he eventually moved the boat to Enoshima. "I came to the conclusion that I'd rather buy 100 liters worth of beer."

For the last 10 years, Urushibara, who turns 80 in October, has been working four days a week at Aoba-Japan International School, where he single-handedly put together the monthly bilingual newsletter, and also has done general PR and liaison work, interpreting and translating. Unfortunately, budget cuts will be forcing an "early retirement" at the end of August.



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