Massan: An AMWF Love Story

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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.)

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Massan and Ellie’s house. Yes, I bought the drama guideーno judging! It’s good reading practice.

Massan“ーThe Drama

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.

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Yummeh yummeh

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 sayingand 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



Further reading

Massan Drama Official Page – NHK

Massan” episodes on GoodDrama.net

 The Rita Taketsuru Fan Club – The Japan Times

Story of the Founder – Nikka Whisky

Masataka Taketsuru, The Father of Whiskey, and His Two Loves – JustHungry.com

Astonishing Life of Young Scotswoman Who Took Whisky to Japan – Daily Record

History of Suntory Whisky – The Yamazaki

Blonds Have More Fun in NHK’s morning drama – The Japan Times

Importing the Water of Life – MetropolisJapan

17 responses to “Massan: An AMWF Love Story”

  1. […] viewers on Scottish culture and customs, but seems to be generalizing a lot. Mostly, though, like YJ and I mentioned, there are a lot of parallels and situations that many intercultural couples can relate toーnot […]

  2. Hilary says:

    I loved morning dramas! They are super addictive and it’s amazing how much gets packed in. Perhaps I’ll be able to watch this one at some point. I enjoyed your review! Hilary from JapanCanMix

    • Please doーbut be careful when you do… The good thing about watching it on TV is that I’m restricted to watching for only as long as it’s airing. Watching things online often results in binge watching for me, so even if they’re only 15 minutes long, I’d probably end up watching for at least an hour…or two. XD

  3. […] caught the bloggin‘ fever and helped me with two posts last week: the one about the AMWF drama “Massan”, as well as a review of the ramen restaurant Menya Itto. Since then he’s even offered to […]

  4. Now you have sparked my interest!! I saw your post on facebook the other day and the story line immediately made me want to watch it and want to learn more about the drama. I love your description as well as your take and YJ’s views about the series. I will have to watch it. But, 8 in the morning – what a weird time for a drama to be on? (Luckily, there is always the internet, right?!!)

    • Ri says:

      Yay, I hope you find the time to watch it online, and you enjoy it! ^^ It’s hard to make sure I’m up to watch it on my days off. ^^; I missed it this morning because I accidentally hit the snooze button too many times!

      The 8am drama thing started last year with Ama-chan and was unexpectedly popular, so I guess they just continued since it worked well last time. I’d like to know how they came up with the idea in the first place though, very curious. 🙂

    • Thank you sooooo much!! I don’t know what’s up with Disqus, but I’m sure I’ve replied to your comment about 2 times already!!! 🙁 (Maybe I need to start moderating my own posts???)
      Anyway, yesー8 is strangely early, but everyone seems to be watching it! Maybe it’s a good time before people go to work/school… It definitely stays more freshly in your mind for the day. I’m awful with the “Hey, did you see ///// show last night? Wasn’t it funny when //// happened?” And I’ll stare back at them blankly, because even though I may have watched the show, the contents is already far, far away. XD

  5. […] If you haven’t checked it out yet, YJ and I wrote an overview about the NHK drama hit “M…. ^^ […]

  6. Marta says:

    Oh I read about this show in another blog! (rubyronin). It really must be popular in Japan haha. I don’t know anything about soap operas in China. I’ve watched briefly some of them (while in the massage clinic, haha) and the actors are so terribly bad that I don’t want to watch Chinese tv. Even if it would be good practice for my listening and vocabulary.

    • Yes, it’s really the talk of the town here! I think it’s special partly because it’s so short, and early in the morningーvery unlike most daytime or late night shows, so more people can watch it I guess.
      Haha yes, daytime drama acting is terrible, no matter where you are in the world, right? XD

  7. Nicki Chen says:

    Fascinating history! (And isn’t it convenient to watch 15 minutes in the morning? Sort of like taking a quick run or walk.) They were indeed a brave couple. Imagine never going back home to Scotland again! Although, now that I think of it, my Scottish grandpa left Scotland as a young man. He moved to Canada and then to the US, and never went back. Maybe that was an era of bravery.

    • Ri says:

      I think you’re rightーit was an era of bravery! Setting forth without knowing what your destination is really like, perhaps never to return again… We are certainly spoiled in this information age. 🙂

      The 15 minutes in the morning is indeed very convenient. Most of the time I don’t even get out of bed to watch it (or return back to it if I’m already ready to head out). ^^;

    • I think you’re rightーit was an era of bravery! Setting forth without knowing what your destination is really like, perhaps never to return again… We are certainly spoiled in this information age. 🙂

      The 15 minutes in the morning is indeed very convenient. Most of the time I don’t even get out of bed to watch it (or return back to it if I’m already ready to head out). ^^;

  8. I have really mixed feelings about it. I really like the show (and the history)… but it’s also very cringe-worthy at points. I don’t know. I also kind of feel sorry for Ellie sometimes, because she literally got dropped there.

    All in all, it is interesting 🙂

    • Oh it’s completely cringeworthy in all sorts of ways (I’ll be getting to those in a review after the series is over I guess)! But agreed, on the whole it’s entertainingーand certainly a first for Japanese TV! ^^

  9. Jocelyn Eikenburg says:

    Wow, this looks so cool! I’ve hearing a lot about this show and your post really clinched it for me — I just have to see this. Do they have a version w/ English subtitles?

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