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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Japan's 'La Gaijine'

The iconic Francoise Morechand brought with her from France a style that her adopted homeland had simply never seen

Special to The Japan Times

On Francoise Morechand's living room table there sits a book once owned by a samurai in the Edo Period (1603-1867) that she says she has been studying.

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Joie de vivre: Francoise Morechand's irrepressible spirit shines through during her recent Japan Times interview. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS
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"I think I may have been a samurai once in a past life. But you know, I would never do hara-kiri. I would die in battle," she declares.

It is this strong sense of conviction and commitment that has garnered Madame Morechand a legion of confidantes and fans across a wide spectrum of societies — from the worlds of fashion, culture and politics, to name a few. But to most people, she is Japan's French flower, helming generations of France-Japan cultural understandings that all began with her breakout popularity in the 1950s as one of the first foreign tarento (television personalities).

Francoise Morechand-Nagataki (as she is now formally called) was born in Paris to intellectual and artistic parents; her father was an adventure-seeking engineer and her mother was a pioneering teacher at the hugely prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris. Her grandmother was close to the renowned scientist Marie Curie, who in 1898 discovered radium.

However, young Francoise's idyllic Parisian life as an only child took a terrifying turn with the American bombing of Paris in the later stages of World War II, when she often shared a shelter with rats and was charged with assisting orphaned Jewish children that her liberal parents hid in their home. Her father didn't escape torture from the Gestapo, condemning Morechand to a lifetime of nightmares in which death comes before confessions to the enemy.

After the war, with an itch to travel, Morechand studied Japanese at university, then moved to Japan with her first husband, a French anthropologist, in 1958.

As a restless young woman of 23, though, Morechand longed to be active in society and so took a job teaching French at Ochanomizu University for women in Tokyo. Only two years older than many of her students, she taught them about everyday Parisian life, using Jacques Prevert poetry collections as textbooks.

Then, as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics approached, she was hired by national broadcaster NHK to head-up its French-language television program — and it was that move which was to set her on the road to becoming a household name in Japan.

What followed was a blitz of regular TV appearances, magazine columns to write, lectures to give and, of course, gaggles of female fans who copied her clothing and singular hair styles. It was a frenetic work pace that continued for seven years until her husband was transferred back to Paris. She followed, but not without many tears.

The following 10 years saw her raising her only daughter, divorcing, and undertaking her first stints in the corporate world through jobs with Revlon and Christian Dior.

Morechand's return to Japan came about in 1974 when Chanel asked her to be director of its cosmetics division here. But when news got around that she had come back, her popularity again became so great that she left Chanel in order to pursue the myriad opportunities coming her way.

It was also soon after returning that she met her current husband, author Tatsuji Nagataki, who has become a respected authority on French culture and the arts.

With the help of her Japanese "other half," Morechand built a brand around her name and became involved in a stream of projects. Among these was a fashion line she designed called "Morechand Kimono" that triggered a boom in "modern" kimono in the 1970s and '80s. Then there was a fine jewelry line, a collection of lacquer dishes, and many others.

As well as all this, Morechand has published 28 books about fashion and lifestyle, including the best-sellers "Shippai Shinai Oshare" ("How to Dress so as Not to Fail"), which sold a million copies, and "La Gaijine" (gaijin means "foreigner" in Japanese), which is a story of her love affair with Japan.

She is also a major supporter of the arts and fashion in Japan, who now acts as an adviser to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. She was, too, involved in establishing Vogue Japan in 1999. Even now she is a fixture at Japan Fashion Week, lending her support and constructive criticism to both young and established designers alike.

Meanwhile, Morechand's wartime experiences have long brought out her caring and philanthropic nature, and she was a catalyst in establishing the Japan branch of the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) nongovernmental aid organizations. Her tireless dedication to making the world a better place has been recognized with four honors from the French government, including the award of its highest decoration, the Legion d'honneur, in 2004.

Even at 75 years old, Morechand insists on continuing to work for her causes and for her adopted country — and right after the Tohoku-Kanto earthquake and tsunami on March 11, I received a personal e-mail from her in which she stated: "I have seen Japan down before, but know that they will bounce back faster than you would ever expect."

For this interview, I met Morechand in her sunny pied-a-terre in central Tokyo's glitzy Roppongi 1-chome district, where she was keeping the company of her two white Persian cats.

You came to Japan at a very young age; did you always have a Far East travel bug?

My parents were artists and intellectuals from Paris, but we were not rich. Like all intellectuals in the 1930s, my father wanted to be an explorer, so he took me to lectures about the Eskimos, Latin America and the Amazon. I did have an incredible urge to travel, but I knew I needed to do it for work as I wasn't able to afford it on my own.

I originally wanted to be an interpreter of Chinese — but a friend of the family reminded me that China had just become a communist country, and as a Francophone I wouldn't be allowed in. So he suggested I go to Japan instead — Japan!

You were surprised?

Well, this was the 1950s. It was still very soon after World War II, with fresh wounds between Japan and Europe. No one in Europe talked about Japan. That friend told me, "Japan may be battered now, but believe me, one day it will be on top of the world." I then started taking Japanese-language lessons in France, and there I met my first husband. Soon after, we were married and he was transferred to Japan, where I went with him.

What were your expectations of Japan?

Well, I really had no idea about it. Back then, all we knew about was "Madame Butterfly," and that it was an island country. Back in the '50s, my family said I was crazy when I told them I was going to Japan. But I have always been seen as crazy because I have done things before anyone else all my life. There were only 300 French citizens in the entire country at the time.

But I became bored playing the expat wife. It wasn't how I was raised.

How were you raised, then?

Oh now this is a story. Really, you cannot know anything about me until you hear about my childhood, and how it has shaped my ideology. That's because I grew up during World War II and witnessed my parents fighting hard against fascism.

My father was an engineer at a steel factory and the Nazis wanted the steel to be sent to Berlin to create weapons. But my father knew he couldn't let that happen, so at night he would gather secretly with workers he trusted to melt the steel and inject it with air so that it would break and become unusable.

It wasn't until later, when the war was pretty much over, that they were able to trace the sabotage back to my father. They captured him and tortured him. In fact, it was me as a child who opened the door to the Gestapo who took him away. He lost his sight because of the abuse.

What a childhood. Were you shielded from most of the atrocities of the war?

No, I remember it vividly! We would rush into the cellar and huddle with the rats while the Americans bombed the city. I would faint, but to me fainting was better than being awake. I can sleep anywhere now, even on a stone.

I also recall one day when children started to show up at my house. They were orphans from Jewish families. I was in charge, with our maid, of meeting new arrivals in the park and then taking them home with us as if they were friends of mine. I was 6 years old and my maid was 18. We would play with the children in the sandbox in the park, and then go home all together, with many of them crying and screaming because they had just been left alone in the world. The Gestapo would stop us on the street, and we would tell them that they were cousins visiting from the countryside. I still get chills when I see the Gestapo uniform or anything inspired by it. As you know, it's quite popular in fashion, but it doesn't bring me good memories.


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