Massan: An AMWF Love Story
There’s a TV show that’s taking Japan by storm this season, at a most unlikely hour (8am in the morning!) and with an unlikely focus: an AMWF (Asian Male White Female) couple in 1920s Japan. The series is called “Massan” and is very loosely based on a true story, and offers insights into intercultural marriage in Japan at the turn of the 20th century. Currently, according to Goo Ranking, “Massan” is the third most searched term in entertainment. It’s got a fair amount of competition from other dramas this season, so it’s quite impressive! It’s the first ever NHK drama series with a foreign female in one of the leading roles, which makes it even more appealing. (Hopefully this will open doors for more diversified representation in Japanese media in future? It may be a long time coming, but I feel hopeful.)
Ambitious Masaharu Kameyama (played by the super yummy Tetsuji Tamayama) returns from adventures in Scotland with not only new-found whisky distillation skills, but alsoーshock and horrorーa Scottish wife. After a number of faux-pas by Ellie (Masaharu’s wife, played by American actress Charlotte Kate Fox), Masaharu’s mother has had enough, and tries to bully the young wife into leaving her husbandーfor his sake. Masaharu’s father, who also initially was against their union, softens as he sees Ellie’s kindness and says she has a good heart. Alas, the damage has been done and Masaharu has dreams to make Japanese whisky, so they leave Hiroshima for Kansai. Unfortunately, the landlord of the house they planned to rent balked at the sight of Ellie and refused to let a foreigner live in his house. After some searching and running into the right peopleーincluding an English-speaking Japanese wife of an English cleric (she calls herself Catherine) ーthey find a place and settle down to business. In Masaharu’s case, this means researching and doing whisky tests, while Ellie battles her way through figuring out Japanese customs, language and cooking Japanese-style. The series isn’t over yet, and it has gone a little bit further than what I’ve described, but you wouldn’t want me to spoil it, right?
The True Story Behind the Drama
While the”father of Japanese whisky” was indeed a real person, dramas have a tendency to make things a little bit flashier for entertainment purposes. The real “Massan” was a man named Masataka Taketsuru. He was born in 1894, a native of Takehara near Hiroshima city, had a black belt in jujitsu, and enjoyed hunting and fishing. He came from a long line of sake brewers and initially planned on succeeding the business. However, while the Taketsuru sake brewery still exists today, Masataka found more interest in Scotch whisky and devoted his life to itーeventually founding Nikka Whisky, a world-renowned distillery based in Hokkaido. Since there was no real whisky culture in Japan, he set off to Scotland in 1918 to learn how to distill the dram, and met Rita (full name Jessie Roberta Cowan) while there. He stayed as a lodger in her father’s house and they grew close, apparently, as they sang “Auld Lang Syne” together. They married in 1920 against the wishes of most everyone they knew, and set off to Japan together that year. Due to post-war depression, it was hard to find a job that would allow creating something new and risky, Masataka actually spent a few years working as a chemistry teacher before he was scouted by Kotobukiya (now Suntory), and helped build the famous Yamazaki distillery on the outskirts of Kyoto. Ten years later he left to start his own distillery in Hokkaidoーthe Yoichi Distilleryーas there the water was supposedly clearer and cleaner, and there was easy access to barley and peat and coalーessential for Scotch whisky production. After that, the rest is history: Nikka became an award-winning distillery and is still going strong today, as is the demand for whisky in Japan. Masataka himself died 1979, 18 years after his wife Rita, who died in 1961.
So what of Rita? Isn’t half of the story about her? She was born in 1896 in Scotland and lived a generally normal lifeーas normal as WWI would allow. She lost her Scottish fiance in the war, and then her father died of a heart attack in 1918, roughly a year before meeting Masataka. After moving to Japan she never returned to Scotland, faithfully assisting Masataka in his ventures until she died. She also helped finance their lives by teaching Englishーincidentally to some very important people, whose help led to Masataka getting investors for his company. Without her contacts, her husband may never have been able to fulfill her dream. She learned Japanese and was fluent, but when she moved to Hokkaido, no one understood her at first. Apparently she had picked up a fair amount of Kyoto dialect and accent during their stay building the Yamazaki distillery and the Hokkaido staff found it incomprehensible. Once settled in Hokkaido, she skied, held piano recitals and dinners, and went hiking. She even became a naturalized Japanese citizenーwhich helped her somewhat when international relations became strained at the start of WWII, but caused her a lot of grief from local townsfolk and police, who had her shadowed day and night.
The war finally ended, and the couple was left to think about Nikka Distillers futureーthey had no children of their own, so adopted Masataka’s nephew, Takeshi, who would take over the business in later years. Takeshi married and had children, who Rita doted on and took good care of until her death in 1961, due to a liver disease.
Our Take on It
Ri: We don’t know what the future holds for “drama Massan”, but I’m curious to see how they will portray the WWII years. So far it’s mostly entertaining and I love that it’s presented in short, 15 minute episodes every morning. It’s just long enough to have some “meat” to each story, but short enough to keep my attention. YJ tends to fall asleep at some point (early mornings and late work nights don’t mix) but is following most of itーall of his coworkers are watching it, so he usually gets a recap at some point. Although there are of course inconsistencies with the true storyーas well as perhaps some unfair portrayals of Japanese husbands/foreign wives on occasionーthe drama is interesting, entertaining and pretty well-balanced. Massan has his faults: since returning to Japan he won’t hug Ellie or say he loves her in a loud voice; he works late and isn’t always understanding of her situation being left alone all day; he has a tendency to completely ignore and override what she’s saying…and so on. However, he’s also very open and caring in other ways, and he speaks about their relationship being a 50/50 partnership (sometimes just words, but he’s admirable for saying it), and he is, on the whole, a good kind man. (Also, Tetsuji Tamayama is, as mentioned, super yummy. I’m allowed to say that because YJ looks a little bit like him. On good days. ^^)b)
Having said that, though the drama is named Massan, I think it should be renamed “Ellie”. Here is a woman at that turn of the 20th century moved halfway across the world to a country and a culture she doesn’t really understand, and has no internet, no TV, no fellow expats to guide her and ease her journey or support her. She is amazing! She never gives up and really pushes forward with her relationships with the locals, as well as her language skills and cooking. It’s like she’s been air dropped onto a new planet and has no map to show the right wayーto anywhere or anything. She’s braver than many of us could ever hope to be. Even when she and Massan had a fight and was met with the retort, “Well, why don’t you go home to Scotland then!?”, she still was magnanimous enough to say “Please, teach me Japanese” as a sign to make up (after storming out). *Pro tip to anyone in an international/intercultural relationship: never use the “well, why don’t you go home to your own country then?” card, because most people don’t need to be as generous as Ellie. It’s a very uncool thing to say, and it can’t be taken back. (Even Ellie was so astounded she responded “How could you!?” in English, even though she speaks Japanese for the most part.) * Ellie isn’t flawless of course: her cooking skills are at best so-so, and she has a tendency to stick her nose where it isn’t wantedーbut usually it’s with good intention, so it’s easy to forgive her.
All in all it’s a charming story, and I look forward each episode in the morning. It’s also opened my eyes to the true story, and as a blossoming history buff, I’ve found a new tidbit of history to unveil. I would really like to visit the Nikka Whisky museum on Yoichi island someday, to see photos of the couple and read more about their lives...and maybe have a spot of whisky. ^^)b
YJ: How are you? YJ here! Today, I’ll write a little bit about NHK’s asadora (short for “asa dorama“, or morning drama). This drama is very popular, isn’t it? Not just my friends and coworkers are talking about it, but even people at the orthopedic clinic I go to are talking about it. (I have lower back pain that’s aggravated by my job right now, so I go to a clinic regularly.)
Some time ago, the drama Ama-chan was a huge hit, and I wonder if this time it’s Massan’s turn to make it big. ^^ (Saying this may be a bit rude but…) Since the couple is an AMWF senpai (senior) , I would like this drama to get popular. Maybe some people who know me may be surprised, but the truth is, I don’t watch TV at all.
Work is busy, so little by little I fond myself watching less and less… but Massan is an exception. When I have a free moment, Ri makes me watch it (lol). I’ve always been meaning to ask Ri if it’s because Massan and Ellie are our AMWF senpai or because the story itself is interesting that we watch it. (lol)
Sorry, the introduction part got a little bit long. Please find my thoughts on the show below↓
Even now, I think it’s tough for expat women who marry Japanese men and live their lives in Japan (getting married is difficult in itself! Getting the marriage registration papers from the embassy, even when you submit those papers you may not get an “okay” from the legal affair bureau, then there’s the paperwork for health insurance, etc, etc. There’s a lot to deal with（＾＾；） ), but it must have been even harder in the Taisho and Showa eras (1912-1989).
The actress (Charlotte Kate Fox) gives a good performance demonstrating how tough it is. For example, her strong character and tenaciousness, her love for Massan, the support around her when living in that time periodーis all well-conveyed through the TV.
I look forward to how the story will unfold. And eventually, I’ll write a review. What?! Well, since Ri is making me watch, I’ll be sure to do it… （＾＾；）Until next time!（＾＾）ノシ