Tetsuko Kuroyanagi is a renowned, an internationally famous actress, an author of a best-selling children’s book (Totto-chan) and one of Japan’s most popular television personalities.
Ms. Kuroyanagi is the director of the Japanese branch of the World Wildlife Fund and a devoted advocate for people with disabilities. She was appointed UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in February 1984.
On behalf of UNICEF she has visited some of the world’s most volatile countries in Asia and Africa, including Cambodia, Angola, Iraq, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Liberia, where civil wars or natural disasters threaten child development and survival.
Through her daily talk-show “Tetsuko’s Room” and with her high visibility in the Japanese media, she has been able to put the spotlight on the conditions faced by the world’s most vulnerable children.
She is known for filing her own television reports on her UNICEF missions and makes direct fund-raising appeals, raising over US$45 million for UNICEF programmes.
As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for more than three decades, Ms. Kuroyanagi has inspired millions of her fellow Japanese not only to donate funds but also to contribute in various other ways.
She is frequently approached by students who are motivated by her books and her dedication to the world’s children to pursue humanitarian careers.
She was born August 9, 1933 in Tokyo.
She is well known for her charitable works, and is considered as one of the first Japanese celebrities who achieved international recognition. In 2006, Donald Richie referred to Kuroyanagi in his book.
In 1984, in recognition of her charitable works, Kuroyanagi was appointed to be a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, being the first person from Asia to hold this position.
During the late 1980s and the 1990s, she visited many developing countries in Asia and Africa for charitable works and goodwill missions, helping children who had suffered from disasters and war as well as raising international awareness of the situations of children in poor countries.
She has raised more than $20 million for the UNICEF programmes that she has been involved in, through television fund-raising campaigns. She also used the royalties from her bestselling book, Totto-chan, to contribute to UNICEF.
She has been voted 14 times as Japan’s favourite television personality, for the show Tetsuko’s Room.
When she was a little girl in Tokyo during World War II, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi wanted to be a spy—until a friend informed her that spies have to keep quiet. So Tetsuko gave it up; she liked to talk too much.
Kuroyanagi, eventually found a profession where she could talk all she wanted—and be paid handsomely for it. Today she is the most popular TV personality in Japan, the star of three hit shows on three separate networks.
Every weekday afternoon 10 million viewers tune in Tetsuko’s Room, Japan’s first and most successful daily talk show.
“Many people say that I am a Japanese Barbara Walters,” allows Tetsuko, whose memoirs are a current runaway best-seller. “But she is very good with politicians and I am not. I don’t like politicians.”
Her specialty is making the guest—anyone from the Prime Minister to a 9-year-old Kabuki actor—feel comfortable. “My guests know I would never treat them badly.” “I never ask a question that digs.” For a very good reason—it is considered impolite by viewers.
Even though she makes a reported $430,000 a year from her work on the tube, Kuroyanagi does not live like a U.S. TV star. She does drive a $26,000 blood-red Mercedes, but she lives alone in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo.
“I’m not like a Hollywood actress with a 20-room house and three pools,” she says.
The housewives who make up her daytime audience gossip about Tetsuko’s love life; she has never married. “Yes, I have a boyfriend,” she says, “but I should have some secrets.”
Then she adds with a mischievous grin, “I used to look for a knight on a white charger…then a gray charger…what would you think of a donkey?”
Totto-chan, as she was called by her parents (a symphony orchestra concertmaster and a trained opera singer), did not grow up like other Japanese in a rigid school system.
At 6, she became an ochikobore—a dropout—after being branded a “bad influence” by her teacher and asked to leave. Totto-chan’s misdeed: staring out the classroom window.
“If I hadn’t been removed from that school,” insists Tetsuko, “my character would have been totally different. I would have learned to obey without asking any questions.”
Her mother moved her to a progressive school held in six abandoned railroad cars and presided over by a maverick principal who mixed handicapped and normal children, let his pupils study subjects in whatever order they wanted, and encouraged them to swim in the nude.
“I promised to be a teacher in his school,” Totto-chan recalls, “but it burned to the ground during the air raids in 1945.”
She has served as a goodwill ambassador for the UNICEF children’s agency for the past 30 years. Now, she dreams of a society where no child dies from starvation or poverty and will continue striving toward that goal.
As a goodwill ambassador, Kuroyanagi has visited more than 30 nations where severe poverty persists, including conflict zones such as Kosovo and Bosnia during the violence of the 1990s. What she learned about the plight of children there Kuroyanagi would later share with audiences in Japan.
Her message is to “care about what is happening to children all over the world.
“That doesn’t have to be a foreign country. I hope you even care for children in your neighborhood, which I think are all related to issues such as bullying,” she said.
Over the past 30 years, Kuroyanagi has regularly found herself in uncomfortable situations in the field, even facing potentially life-threatening incidents. Once, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, her bus was stopped by local bandits. She said she was also arrested once in Sarajevo, the nation’s capital, on suspicion of espionage.
“Children tried to live strongly with smiles on their faces, even in very unfair, brutal situations, like that when their families are killed in front of them, or after having had their arms cut off by guerrilla groups,” she said.
“When I see them, I always think of children in Japan . . . I hope they, too, can live with courage.”
Kuroyanagi said the situation has improved over her 30 years in the role, noting the annual number of children dying from malnutrition and disease has decreased to 6.3 million, from 14 million in 1989, thanks to activities that raise awareness of the problem globally.
Kuroyanagi said the key to continuing her work is her physical strength, which she maintains by doing squats daily, and her positive personality.
“I would continue my activity until I turn 100,” she said.