sayoko.jpg

The image on the left was probably taken more than two decades ago. The one on the right was taken a few years ago.

Who is she?
– Her name is Sayoko Yamaguchi (山口小夜子).
– Sayoko was the first and maybe the only supermodel from Japan. Newsweek magazine named her one of the world’s top six fashion models in 1977.
– Sayoko Mannequin manufactured in ’77 by a British company was displayed all over the world through the ’80s. Fashion designer Anna Sui still owns two of these vintage mannequins and uses them in her shop.
– According to Yoshiharu Fukuhara, Shiseido’s Honorary Chairman and the grandson of the company’s founder, Sayoko was Shiseido’s liaison with Serge Lutens who often had done makeup for Sayoko.
– Sayoko was the face of Shiseido for many years. She had a very Japanese-looking face, but her physique was not (ie. tall height, long legs). She didn’t really make a great model for a kimono because of her not-so-Japanese-looking body, but here is Sayoko in a kimono in one of Shiseido’s commercials.

bijinhakumei.jpgThe word “bi-jin” literally means a beautiful person and mostly used for women. “Haku-mei” denotes ‘thin life’ which translates to short life. It illustrates the Japanese worldview of beautiful things being frail and grieving such frailness. Sayoko Yamaguchi died two months ago at age of 57. Sayoko’s life was almost 30 years short of reaching the average lifespan of Japanese women today. Her life exemplified this idiom.

Her death brought back to me an almost forgotten memory. One fall afternoon, when I was about 17, I was waiting for a local train at Yokohama station to go to Tokyo. When I looked over at the platform for the express trains to Tokyo on the other side of the track, I saw a pair of long legs in yellow boots stretched out below a short skirt moving in elegant strides. They belonged to a very tall young woman with long black hair whom I recognized from glossy fashion magazines. No sooner had I realized it was Sayoko Yamaguchi than I dashed up the stairs of an overpass to get to the other platform where she was. An express train came in before I could get close to her. I kept my eyes on Sayoko Yamaguchi in the distance to remember the car she was getting aboard till I got on the rear car of the train. I walked through the aisles towards Green Cars (the first-class coaches in Japan) as the train headed to Tokyo. When I reached one of the Green Cars I felt so lucky to find her alone, there was nobody else in the car. I probably felt as I was going up to Heaven. I don’t remember how I introduced myself or how I left the car half an hour later. I only remember that I stayed in the car sitting next to her until I got off the train at one of the stops in Tokyo. We chatted about fashion in general, about Issey and Kenzo.

Although she must have been at the height of her modeling career then, the tall, striking woman I met on that cloudy autumn day was extremely gentle and pleasant… far from what we imagine today’s supermodels to be.