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The Extraordinary Journey of Shigeo Takayama

“Now I stand in the twilight of my life,” Shigeo Takayama writes, in the introduction to his book. “It is time that I collect all the footprints on the path that I have walked these past eighty-eight years, and leave them in the form of writing.”


Originally intended as a deeply personal oral history to share with his sons, who are more fluent in English than in Japanese, Takayama’s My Life: Living in Two Cultures releases a torrent of memories, saved for years until Takayama reached the right moment to share them.

Spanning nearly 90 years and illustrated with photographs, My Life unfolds like an epic movie, juxtaposing major world events—wars, earthquakes, the rise of industries—with moving human stories, such as Takayama finding the lifelong love of his life, Megumi, at the age of 39.

Born in Los Angeles in 1916, Takayama was schooled in Japan and later returned to the Los Angeles area and graduated from Roosevelt High School. He dreamed of becoming a bacteriologist, a dream that was shattered by his father’s decision to move the family back to Japan. “I stood on the deck, watching America grow smaller and smaller until it was only a dot on the horizon, thinking of all my friends and teachers,” Takayama writes. “I knew without a doubt that I would return to America, and that America would welcome me back with open arms, someday in the future.”

The life journey that followed was a remarkable odyssey through Japanese and American history. Shortly after finishing college, World War II broke out and Takayama was drafted into the Japanese army and sent to serve in China. Wounded in battle, Takayama spent a hellish period recuperating in a lice-infested field hospital. While there, he observed Japanese soldiers looting Chinese families’ homes in the surrounding area, and he helped to protect some of the families by making makeshift door signs, written in official-sounding Japanese, forbidding soldiers from entering.

The horrific experience of war left him overwhelmed with grief and questioning his place in the world. After the war, he served as an interpreter for the American armed forces during the tense American occupation period and the Fukui earthquake of 1948. Later, Takayama served in the Japanese consulate in New York and went on to establish a trading company called Hakuto. Through Hakuto, Takayama became one of Japan’s most respected businessmen, pioneering the importation of quartz crystals for use in telecommunications technology. Founding ten legendary “company principles” (including “Love your work; love your colleagues; love your company”), Takayama helped usher in an extraordinary new technological era in Japan.

Along the way, Takayama the family man struggled with tragedies amid the triumphs. “I had sent for [my mother] and had her live with my younger sister’s family in Yokohama while I had a house built for her in Mitaka,” Takayama recalls. “I had brought a television back from America, which was still a novelty in Japan, and had just finished setting it up for her in her new house. The house was all furnished, and I was planning to go after her the next day... The company was established, employees were hired, and I was finally able to take care of her.” It was then that he learned that his mother had just passed away.

Interspersed throughout Takayama’s memoir, which he dedicates to his wife, Megumi, are photos of the couple in various stages of their life. In nearly every instance, they stand close together in the same basic pose, with Megumi at his left arm. With poignant candor, Takayama shares her gentle decline into Alzheimer’s disease in their later years.

“The lips of Megumi that once spoke of love to me do not utter a word now,” Takayama writes. “The hands of Megumi that once cooked for the family, washed clothes and cleaned the house for us, the hands that took my suit off of me from behind when I came home, are now withered, dry and small. But as long as her blood is running through them, they are Megumi’s lips and Megumi’s hands.”

It was Megumi who had urged him for years to write down his stories. “I cannot help but imagine, if Megumi were to get well by some miracle and read this, how pleased and proud she would be,” writes Takayama. “I am not in the habit of talking about my past, but it would make me happy if my children, grandchildren, and the people who have worked with me understand what kind of path I have walked in this life.”

“My life has never been a simple one,” says Takayama. “It has been filled with many twists and turns: The radical change in the relationship between Japan and America, the monumental war, my family duty, my friends and acquaintances on both sides of the ocean—all of these complications deeply affected the course of my life. I was continually challenged with the unknown and unexpected. In each case, I either endured the pressure or fought back.”

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Shigeo Takayama’s My Life: Living in Two Cultures was originally published in February 2005 in Japan under the title 『ふたつの祖国に育まれて-日本とアメリカ往ったり来たり』 (文芸社). The English-language version was published in 2007 in collaboration with the Japanese American National Museum. The English-language version was published in 2007 in collaboration with the Japanese American National Museum, and was premiered with a special public program attended by Mr. Takayama and members of his family.

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* This article was originally published on the Japanese American National Museum Store Online.

© 2007 Japanese American National Museum

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About this series

The award-winning Museum Store of the Japanese American National Museum features distinctive Asian American merchandise for all occasions and generations. Their unique product line represents the essence of the Japanese American experience, while also promoting an appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity. All proceeds from the Museum Store support Museum programs and exhibitions.

The articles in this series were originally written for the Japanese American National Museum’s online store []  to give a deeper understanding of the authors, artists, and traditions featured in the store.