Japanese lose their yen for Tetsu no Onna

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The Independent Online
Long after her fall from grace at home, Baroness Thatcher - or Tetsu no Onna ("Woman of Iron") - remained a figure of great popularity and fascination in Japan. While British comedians were satirising her as a crazed harridan, the ex-prime minister was making frequent and lucrative speaking tours of Japan to adoring coverage from the local media.

One magazine was reported to have paid her pounds 59,000 in 1991 for an interview; a fortnight ago, Japanese newspapers carried advertisements for high-powered seminars bearing the Thatcher countenance. But the tide seems to be finally turning. This month, a city in northern Japan is being sued by a group of irate citizens, after paying pounds 79,000 for a few hours of the ex-prime minister's time.

On 27 May last year Lady Thatcher visited the city of Sendai, 300km north of Tokyo. Arriving in the late morning she attended a meeting with the mayor, a lunchtime reception, and gave a post-prandial speech, followed by a question and answer session. In the afternoon, she visited a display of Burberry raincoats at a department store before being waved off on the bullet train back to Tokyo in late afternoon.

The bill for the entire "Earth Citizen Forum", as the event was called, was 17.2 million yen (pounds 90,000), of which Yn15m was for Lady Thatcher's appearance, paid via the Dentsu advertising and public relations agency.

At the beginning of this month, a local volunteer organisation, Sendai Citizens Ombudsman, filed a legal action against the mayor and two of his officials, demanding that they pay back most of the money and sack four members of the city's audit committee. "This is too expensive, and we asked the audit committee for a breakdown," said Tsunesuke Kurayama, the group's secretary-general. "Their answer was that there is no problem with the payments. We haven't heard anything from the mayor." Both Dentsu and the city refuse to disclose how the huge sum was broken down, so the group has written to Lady Thatcher to ask how much she received.

A spokesman for the Sendai city office said that the Yn15m included fees for an interpreter and the PR agency. "We think that our citizens appreciated the event, and her speech was worth what we paid," she said. But a Japanese businessman who has hosted speaker meetings on Lady Thatcher's behalf called it "an absurd amount of money".

A member of Lady Thatcher's staff said yesterday that her press spokesman is on holiday, and that no one else was available for comment.