A life less ordinary

50 years since her death, Dave Broom looks at the great woman behind Japan’s great whisky man
By Dave Broom
A person’s life is comprised of their connections with others, yet time reduces those to mere shadow. The heroic focus of the story will eventually seem to stand clear of the mess of their life, the focus of attention, yet reduced to a cipher, their lives little more than myth. The legend overwhelms the flesh. Masataka Taketsuru is one such case in point. As we concentrate on trying to read his mind, understand his motivations, so the rest of his life slips away. Peter Innes, Kijiro Iwai, Shotaro Kaga – all vital players in his story drift away. The same has happened to his wife, Rita, who died 50 years ago this January. Yet Rita plays an important role in Masataka’s story – and the story of Japanese whisky.

It’s a tale which reads more like fiction – a love story whose arc takes in revolution, exile, xenophobia and war. Even their first meeting seems gilded with an authorial brush, the arrival of the young Japanese student to Glasgow in December 1918 and his meeting with the shy eldest daughter of his landlady.

The unwitting matchmaker was Rita’s sister Ella Cowan, Rita’s younger sister who met Masataka soon after his arrival. Where it happened isn’t clear, though it was probably at Glasgow University where she was an 18-year-old medical student. It’s what happened next which is more intriguing. Ella not only speaks to Masataka, but invites him home to meet her family. He was in need of lodging, her family needed the money, perhaps she simply saw an opportunity, as we’ll see, the Cowan girls were quick to make their minds up.

Ella’s taking the initiative is significant. These were changing days for women. She was a member of only the second generation of women to study medicine and was following in her father’s career. She had entered the Medical faculty the previous year with things set fair for the family. Her father’s practice in the growing town of Kirkintilloch with its iron foundries and shipbuilding yards, was expanding. The family house, Middlecroft, reflected this optimism, a grand solid building with nine bedrooms and four reception rooms. On June 22 1918, it all changed. Dr Cowan died, his widow couldn’t afford Middlecroft’s mortgage, patients owed money. Masataka was a financial stop-gap.

They were headstrong, independent, impulsive, rebellious, not afraid to flout convention, in tune with the times

He meets the 23-year-old Rita at Middlecroft. She is the eldest daughter and while physically she’s described as ‘not strong’, like Ella, she’s bright having studied English literature, French and music at The Atheneum, the commercial college in central Glasgow. What though is in front of her? Like many of her generation, she’d suffered heartbreak with the loss of her fiancee in Damascus during the war.

She was part of a generation of women who were destined to spend the rest of their lives alone, watching their sisters marry and have children, becoming the maiden aunt left behind to look after an aging parent, a life centered around cooking and caring for others, entertaining her mother’s friends, listening to the same stories, playing the same tunes on the piano. For Rita, a lifetime in genteel middle class Glasgow beckoned. With her father dead, what else could she do? We get few chances in life and often they slip from grasp.

Now with Masataka, perhaps, was a second chance. Rita is no gold-digger, Masataka had precious little of that. She was, however, modern, like her sister, like her soon to be husband. She was the product of her time and her environment. The war had seen women’s role of women change fundamentally as they begin to assert their independence and Glasgow was a centre of radicalism. On ‘Black Friday’ Jan 31st 1919 10,000 troops, backed up with tanks, were sent to the city to quell what some felt was the start of a Bolshevik revolution after police had instigated a riot after attacking the 60,000 trade unionists assembled in George Square. The city teetered on the brink.

Glasgow was a vibrant, seething, highly politicised city. Did Masataka ignore this, or did this atmosphere of change, this sense of society reorganising itself into new shapes post-War appeal to him? As well as the singing of the songs of Lauder and Burns round Middlecroft’s piano, him beating time with a Japanese hand drum, he would have discussed politics with these sharp-witted Cowan girls. He was immersed in Glasgow. Three months after Black Friday, arriving back from Elgin he wrote: “I felt... that Glasgow is my town”.

The romance, in a manner not atypical in such a febrile atmosphere, is swift. His studies are ending. They are in love. Marriage makes sense. Later in life, Masataka recalled that he asked Rita that getting married would be one way for him to stay in Scotland. Her reply was that his dream was to make whisky in Japan and that they should go. Is this just a courteous dance? A convenient memory? Or is this Rita seizing that second chance, taking control and, what’s more, doing it for love? If she’d accepted his suggestion of staying in Scotland what would the whisky landscape look like now?

On Jan 8 1920, a year after that first meeting, they get married in Great Hamilton Street, dine in the Station Hotel with Prof. Wilson, his tutor at the Royal Technical College, and quickly move to Campbeltown where Wilson appears to have smoothed the way for an apprenticeship with Peter Innes at Hazelburn, conveniently some distance from the disapproving Cowan family.

What does the marriage say? That they were headstrong, independent, impulsive, rebellious, not afraid to flout convention; on one hand in tune with the times, yet on the other certainly not the behaviour expected of either the daughter of a respectable doctor in Kirkintilloch, or a respectable young Japanese student.

Maybe in Masataka’s mind he was already the returning hero, the only man in Japan to know the secrets of whisky making, back from Scotland and with a Scottish bride. He – they – could make a radical difference in Japan. Instead, he found that the firm which sent him now controlled by the bank, which changes any thoughts of whisky distillation. He dutifully files his report and then resigns.

Masataka was saved by Shinjiro Torii and the building of Yamazaki and his legend grows from this point, away from Rita, becoming more opaque. Yet she is still part of the tale.

You look for clues in photos. On her 1920 Japanese passport her hair is short, slightly tousled, trendy, her gaze, away from the camera seems wistful but the more you look the more conscious her expression is; there’s a witty intelligence about her, a self awareness and quickness of thought. She is an independent woman, but an independent woman in a society where arranged marriages were still the norm. Osaka was not liberal Glasgow with its women doctors.

She took control as much as anyone can take control and by doing so she helped shape others’ lives

A second photo from a few months later shows a different Rita. Taken at the official welcome dinner for Masataka in Osaka she sits in the centre in a plain black velvet dress. The men surrounding her are all in black, most in high collars, serious. Only Masataka cuts a dash with his natty bow tie and moustache. He’s not looking at the camera. Rita’s face is bleached out. She seems diminished, as if retreating from the camera.

She has no-one but her husband. Years later, her sister will write to her saying she knows that Rita cannot return to Scotland during the war because “[she] cleaves to Massan [her pet name for her husband].” They are partners, but are outsiders. She is in a strange limbo land – not an expat, not Japanese. The houses they stay in are grand and western style, but within their kitchens she cooks Japanese food. She recalls the Atheneum and starts piano lessons, begins to teach English to schoolchildren and wives of businessmen.

Masataka’s vision is pushing him on. In 1934, chastened by the perceived demotion from being Japan’s only whisky distiller to being made the head of Kotobukiya brewery, he resigns and they move once more, this time north, far north and west, chasing his vision into the wilds of Hokkaido.

Hokkaido is a new start. Another photo. There’s Rita, laughing, on her back, covered in snow, skis splayed. She’s fuller in the face, her lipstick bright red against the white, hair still fashionably permed. Life is good. There’s such optimism in this snapshot, such freedom. Masataka is fishing and hunting and starting his new venture – apple juice, cider, whisky. Maybe this time.

I t worked, but first they had to survive the war. Rita never spoke of that time and though she wasn’t interned there was harassment – suspicions of broadcasting to Allied submarines, the police following every time she left the house, stones being thrown. She is alone. Her family want her back in 1940, but was that ever an option?

She survived the war and she and Masataka adopted Takeshi in 1945. By the 1950s she’s a grandmother, but she’s thinner, the weakness in the lung, in the liver, the privations of war, the long winters, her husband away for much of the time.

Rita is now the founder’s wife, the old lady who gives the town of Yoichi its kindergarten. “It’s a lonely business getting old,” she wrote in 1957, “but I try to remember I made my own life.” She did. She took control as much as anyone can take control and by doing so she helped shape others’ lives.

Further reading

Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend
Olive Checkland
Scottish Cultural Press, Edinburgh