Part Two: Finding My Fit in a Free-Size Dress

“Remember, you need to bring a friend,” Fujie-san said as we prepared to end our phone call. “A Japanese friend.”

Ms. Fujie Atsuko was Uno Chiyo’s business secretary, literary agent, and tenacious gatekeeper. She set the conditions for our meeting in no uncertain terms.

“Neither Uno Sensei nor I speak a word of English. If you don’t bring a Japanese friend we’ll be uncomfortable.”

The implication, of course, was that I would be unable to conduct the interview in Japanese, even though we were speaking Japanese on the call.

Besides, hadn’t I just sent Uno Sensei a long letter written meticulously in Japanese? Given the clumsy handwriting—sometimes blocky letters, sometimes flowing—there could have been no doubt that I had written it myself.

Didn’t that qualify me to interview the author by myself? The request stung.

Still, she had a point. My spoken Japanese was shaky. I had worked tirelessly on that letter with my Japanese language tutor. Without her efforts the letter may well have been incomprehensible!

“Of course. I will bring a friend, and I will be at your apartment by 1:00.” My hands were so sweaty with nerves that I could hardly hold the telephone receiver. Even so, I was shivering as I clutched the phone, bowing madly in the empty hallway saying goodbye.

Who on earth could I bring to the interview?


I had known Naoko since my year in Fukuoka. We had left the city together in 1977—I to return to my undergraduate studies at St. Andrews and she to enter a post-college program at Campbell College—both in North Carolina. She traveled with me to ease her parents’ worry about her making the trip alone. Other than that, we really had little in common.

And yet, we were friends.

“Sure,” she answered right away.

“I don’t know what to say, though.”

Naoko didn’t have much interest in literature and even less in my research.

“You don’t have to say anything,” I snapped, still secretly aggrieved at being “chaperoned.”

“I’ll do all the talking, Naoko. You’re just there to make Uno Sensei feel better.”

I spent the next week preparing the questions I would ask. I had them vetted by my Japanese tutor, and then I carefully transcribed them on a note pad. Again, and again, and again, until the pad on the middle finger of my right hand was red and puffy from the pressure of the pen and the words were scored in my brain.

I rushed out to purchase a small tape recorder and a set of cassette tapes. They still had those back in the 1980s.

“What on earth am I going to wear?”

I rifled through my wardrobe, such as it was. Mostly I wore jeans and sweaters to the library, along with sensible shoes to get me the mile or so up the hill from the station.

Too dowdy, too casual, too awful!

Besides, it was nearly the end of June—crazy weather time. Humid and chilly all at once.

Fashionable Uno Chiyo, 1935

Fashionable Uno Chiyo, 1935

I had nothing. Nothing I could wear to interview Japan’s first modern girl. Nothing that would draw the approval of the former publisher and editor of the magazine STYLE. A fashion plate if there ever was one.

It was hopeless.

I had very little extra money, but I headed to Shinjuku to search for an appropriate outfit. It would not be easy. I was taller than most women. My arms were longer, my waist lower. And my pocketbook was much smaller.

First, I went to Odakyu, the huge store right at the station. No luck. Everything was too tailored and too small. Same at the posh Isetan, a grand old store where the stylishly uniformed sales clerks eyed me cautiously.

But finally at Takashimaya I happened upon a sale on the top floor. A matronly sales clerk caught whiff of my desperation and latched on to me, guiding me to a rack of “free-size” dresses.

“Look at this fabric,” she purred. “It’s such a light weave, perfect for the season.”

She was right about that. The beige and grey plaid fabric was crisp and flimsy at the same time.

She pushed me into a dressing room.

It fit.

Of course it fit. The dress had no shape.

She cinched a belt around my waist, rolled the sleeves up high on my arms and curled the collar under.

“Oh, this is purrrfect on you,” she trilled, guiding me to a mirror.

I saw myself through her eyes.

“You’re so sumaato,” she said, meaning svelte. “I wish I were as tall as you! Then, I could wear a dress like this.”

That should have been a clue, but I was caught up in her enthusiasm. I purchased the dress and the belt and rushed home.

The next day I met Naoko at the station. She was dressed in a very chic two-piece skirt and blouse with colors and patterns that mimicked my own. We certainly looked well coordinated.

Rebecca and Naoko, June 21, 1984

Rebecca and Naoko, June 21, 1984

Naoko had purchased a boxed cake and carried it neatly wrapped in a proper shopping bag. I had already scouted out the route to Uno Chiyo’s apartment—at least three times in advance—and knew there was a florist just down the street. It had been my plan to greet the writer with a lavish bouquet.

“What’s the occasion?” The florist inquired.

“I’m going to meet Uno Chiyo Sensei,” I practically shouted. “What kind of flowers do you recommend?”

“In that case,” the florist barely batted an eye—I think she may have been used to preparing flowers for the celebrated writer—“I’ll make a special arrangement.”

Her hands flew over the pails of fresh flowers selecting purple dendrobium orchids, white hydrangeas, and yellow lilies. The final product was breathtaking—bold and delicate all at once—and sweetly fragrant.

As we stood outside Uno Chiyo’s apartment building, I felt my stomach knot. For the first time, I was relieved that Naoko was with me.

Fujie-san called through the intercom when we rang the bell, and Naoko answered immediately, appropriately, politely, as I stared at Uno’s nameplate dumbstruck.

This was it. This was the moment I had fought so hard for over the last seven months.

What if I make a fool out of myself?

After all that preparation, what if she doesn’t like me?

What if I say the wrong thing?

What if . . . ?

To find out what happens next, please keep your eye on this space for the next installment of “On Encountering Icon, Uno Chiyo.”