Obituary: Uno Chiyo

The novelist and kimono designer Uno Chiyo was an enchantingly vivacious old lady who occasionally appeared on Japanese television wearing unusually classic kimono, old-fashioned hairstyles and thick pebble glasses. It was easy to see what a beauty she must have been in her youth, and to understand why so many men - most of them quite unworthy of her - fell under her spell.

She reminded me of the sexually voracious Marlene Dietrich - her almost exact contemporary - revealed in her daughter Maria Riva's bitter biography. Or of the centenarian grandes dames, still avid for male attentions, in Ronald Firbank's novels, one of whose delicately caricatured aristocrats, Lady Parvula de Panzoust, loves to practise her "hobby" of "standing in shafts of sunlight", just as Uno Chiyo to the very last gasp adored basking in the glow of media celebrity.

The first time I saw her in the flesh was at the Tokyo Imperial Hotel for the celebration of her 88th birthday, the special occasion known in Japan as beiju. Hundreds of friends and fans attended. During the long evening she changed her resplendent kimono three times, a custom (o-iro- naoshi) more usually performed by young brides at the wedding reception after the Shinto ceremony. These were really just opportunities for the star of the evening to freshen her make-up, and to the end Uno was an ardent maquilleuse - her first published story was the prize-winning "Shifun no kao" ("Painted Face", 1921).

She started off as a schoolteacher at the Kawashima Elementary School in Iwakuni in 1914, and in what was then a quiet provincial backwater she at once created a scandal by wearing an elaborate geisha wig and make- up in class, and had a love-affair with a young teacher. The teacher had to transfer to another post, while she went off blithely in search of another romance. It was to be the pattern of all her life.

Uno Chiyo wrote only a handful of works, most of them short. Her longest story is purely autobiographical, Irozange (Confessions of Love), serialised in the literary magazine Chuo Koron from 1933 to 1935, and runs to only 150 pages or so. After a disastrous "arranged" marriage to an unsuitable cousin, she fled to Tokyo. She worked for a while as a waitress in a restaurant opposite the office of Chuo Koron, where she got to know the editor who later published her first story.

Confessions of Love is based on a gruesome personal experience in 1929, when she had a love-affair with the artist Beiji Togo, who was recovering from a nasty double love suicide. Uno had wanted to collect information about the affair, in which the girl had died, for a novel. She arrived at Togo's house with only a handbag, but after making love with the artist on the very blood-stained futon on which the botched double suicide had taken place, she lived with him for five years. Sixty years later, she recalled: "We fell upon each other like animals. You see, it was the blood- stained bandage round his neck that got me."

The "hero" is portrayed as selfish, cowardly, weak-willed, fickle and very capricious. He is an artist who has lived some years in America - "Merican Jap" is the term Uno uses - and he never puts brush to canvas, but scrounges money from various morose, insolent girls. In the end, as nearly always in Japanese life, it is the women in this story who emerge as the stronger characters, while the self-important males reveal themselves to be little boys at heart, with second-rate abilities.

Uno Chiyo kept writing sporadically for magazines, and for her own Sutairu ("Style"), Japan's first fashion magazine. During the Second World War, however, it was suppressed by government censors, who found the articles she wrote on themes like "How to Wear a Summer Frock" and "Proper Underwear - a Must for Western Dresses" not in keeping with the seriousness of the times. But the unsinkable Uno Chiyo resurrected it during the Occupation. She became even more famous as an innovative kimono designer than as a writer.

Her "Aru hitori no onna no hanashi" ("Story of a Woman Alone", 1971) is another fascinating re-telling of her life, mainly confining itself to her early years and her precocious sexual needs. She asks herself, "Was it instinct? Fear? Or merely lust?" as she ponders her youthful erotomania. She emerges as a woman who did exactly as she pleased.

Her beautiful short novel Ohan she declares to be the most "constructed" of her works, claiming its rather erratic story is based on La Princesse de Cleves. It is a historical novel about the puppet-makers and puppeteers of Shikoku, and was awarded the Noma Prize when it appeared in 1957. The film director Kon Ichikawa made it into a movie in 1984.

Uno Chiyo celebrated her 95th birthday in grand style with a party at the Ginza branch of Takashimaya Department Store. The eighth-floor art gallery staged an exhibition of her works, including manuscripts of her novels as well as their now rare first editions, and a number of sumptuous formal kimonos designed by her. Moreover, there was an exact reconstruction of her gorgeous living-room in the high-class Aoyama district of Tokyo.

During the run of the show, this indefatigable nonagenarian was on display every day to chat with a retinue of famous friends in the presence of an appreciative audience and adoring television cameras.

For the magazine Claire Uno Chiyo composed this maxim: "I like people who don't give up their lust for life in whatever situation they find themselves until the very last moment." Again, she said: "All deaths before the age of 100 are accidental deaths, deaths caused by carelessness or thoughtlessness. Men and women can live naturally to be 100 and over." Uno Chiyo just missed that mark.

Uno Chiyo, novelist and kimono designer: born Kawanishi 28 November 1897; died Tokyo 10 June 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor