Home > History, Theatre > East Meets West – The Marriage Of German Ballerina Hedi Wekel and Japanese Cellist Yukichi Koh

East Meets West – The Marriage Of German Ballerina Hedi Wekel and Japanese Cellist Yukichi Koh

Hedi Koh (born Hedwig Wekel) (1909 – 2012)

Hedi Koh who had died aged 103 was born on the 20th February 1909 as Hedwig Wekel in Leipzig. She was a highly talented ballerina, nearly 19 years old, at the Leipzig opera when she met Yukichi Koh. He was the first Japanese man she had ever seen and she was surprised at this good looking, beautiful man. Till then she had only known Japanese faces from Japanese Ukiyo e, woodcut prints and had formed some strange perceptions about the appearance of Japanese people, expecting them to be yellow skinned and Mongolian looking. His appearance disproved any prejudices she might have held. He saw her looking at him and smiled. Like a lightning bolt out of the blue they fell in love, the Ballerina and the future Cello soloist. Professor Julius Klengel at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music was informed. Hedi’s parents were very taken with Yukichi partly due to his good manners. He was attentive, friendly and helpful and when he asked for Hedi’s hand in marriage they couldn’t say no though they were downhearted that she would be leaving to live in a country far away. However Yukichi promised to return every three years, a promise which was kept until the Second World War made it impossible.

In 1928 they left from Berlin on their long journey to Japan on the Trans-Siberian railway. Hedi left everything behind for Yukichi, her friends, relatives and a promising career as a ballerina. They spent one night in Moscow. In Siberia the train stopped at many stations, where they would receive hot water for tea and sometimes even roast chicken. It was a very romantic journey! Immediately after their arrival in Japan they were married and, said Hedi, “I gave up my German nationality as was usual at the time and it occurred to me that I couldn’t leave the country as I had no passport”.

Despite her blue eyes she had become Japanese and struggled to learn the spoken and written language. For the first few years they lived together with Yukichi’s unmarried sister and mother, something which proved to be a little difficult. It wasn’t an easy time for Hedi because of a culture that was strange to her which led to frequent emotionally frustrating misunderstandings on both sides. Traditionally in Japan the subordinate relationship of a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law demands unconditional obedience, something which was accepted only with difficult by a Western woman. In the kitchen Hedi was required to cook in the kneeling position over a Hibachi on a charcoal fire. To help Hedi frequently placed the Hibachi on the kitchen table but as soon as she left the kitchen it was returned to the floor. Eventually, as a result of Hedi’s understanding of her mother-in-law’s good intentions in requiring the same standards as she would from a Japanese daughter-in-law, their relationship improved. Finally they became very close and friendly which helped after Yukichi died of stomach cancer aged 51. Yukichi’s mother outlived her son going on to reach a respectable age.

However, Hedi didn’t spend all of her time in the kitchen, travelling with Yukichi whenever he had to go anywhere when she accompanied him, to Shanghai and Beijing where the Japanese ambassador threw them a large party at the Hotel Majestic where, after Yukichi’s recital finished, Hedi gave a ballet performance accompanied by an Italian pianist. They were also invited and travelled to Indonesia, Taiwan and Germany. In 1932 they travelled to Germany on an eight week journey by ship where they stayed for several months with Hedi’s parents.

Hedi and Yukichi Koh onboard ship

Waiting for a letter to be delivered via Siberia for nearly two weeks meant that a reply could take nearly a month. Hedi commented that, “telephone calls between Japan and Germany were not possible then. Nowadays my daughter can call her daughter in Paris so I see that there is a positive side to progress”, adding that, “after sixty or seventy years japan was a completely different world. There had been no high rise buildings and the roads were untarred. When it rained it was like living in mud. I had brought some high heeled shoes with me from Germany and with a few weeks they were completely broken. Shibuya was then a small village with tiny lanes. There were many women with powdered faces and lots of combs in their hair”.

Hedi and Yukichi’s relationship had been one of harmony and as the first five years of their marriage was childless they had the opportunity to travel together on tour. They did want children and soon there were two daughters and a son, none of whom had problems at school. No one called them ‘gaijin’ as is sometimes done today and they integrated into Japanese society finding entrance to some of the best schools in Japan.

Hedi Koh and children

Yukichi died when the children were respectively only 10, 13 and 16 though their development was not adversely affected. Their son graduated from Keio University, their first daughter from Nihon Joshi Daigaku, and the second daughter from Ochanomizu Academy. Their son went to work for a Japanese company based in New York. All three married Japanese partners and Hedi had six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She lived in Kamakura with her eldest daughter and her family in a large modern house in a quiet area surrounded by trees where not much could be heard except for birdsong and the tinkling of the brook through the rushes. It was five minutes to the bus stop and ten minutes to Kamakura station.

It wasn’t always so calm and peaceful, as Hedi commented about her experience of wartime, “that was my worst experience. Fortunately I always had a really good relationship with my Japanese neighbours and because they knew I was German were always very helpful. Had I been American it would have been very problematic. After we moved from Zushi in Kanagawa to Yokosuka, a military port, things took a dramatic turn. The local population refused to have anything to do with me and there was downright animosity going so far as to suspect me as being a spy because of my Western appearance. My Japanese nationality did not help me at all. I hardly dared to venture out. Because of our political naivety Yukichi and I were unable to recognize the danger. Normally at that time Germans living in Japan spent the war living in Karuizawa and Hakone. By a favourable twist of fate one year before the end of the war our family moved to Manchuria where my husband got a post with a broadcasting company in Mukden as due to his poor health he was unfit for military service. Additionally there were no posts on offer for cellists as except for military parades musical performances were forbidden”.

Hedi and Yukichi Koh in the late 1930s early 1940s backstage at a performance of Kanjinchō (The Subscription List) at the Imperial Theatre (Teikoku Gekijo) in Tōkyō with, in costume, (left) Ichimura Uzaemon XV and (right) Matsumoto Kōshirō VII

After the war there were still many problems and privations. As things started to improve Yukichi was taken ill with stomach cancer and died in 1951 and at the age of 42 Hedi became a widow. Alone with three young children and not a home owner it was doubtful whether she could afford the rent and as a precaution she quit their rented home.

What was to become of them? In such a desperate situation Hedi prayed, convinced that God would help. She looked for work and the German company Siemens needed someone to write letters for a Japanese company executive. The German School also needed someone to work in the kindergarten and, unsure of whether she would be able to do the job but after having been persuaded by Mr. Richter School Rector at the time, she took up the position looking after growing children between one month and ten years old in the morning and in the afternoon typing letters and working as a translator. When their Japanese neighbours in Chiba discovered that she had been a ballerina and danced at the Leipzig Opera they persuaded her to give ballet lessons for girls at the weekends. She was already forty five years old but because she was in her element she loved that work best. With diligence and hard work she was able to feed and bring up her children and was eventually able to afford the down payment on a house in Chiba which she went on to pay for by instalments. She didn’t waste time living in despair as she needed all her strength to continue to improve the standard of living of her family. She saw that her Japanese friends who would never abandon her if she needed help in an emergency. Otherwise she always tried to take hold of and sort out their problems herself.

Hedi Koh 1956 ballet perfomance

Was her burden enormous? It was difficult and hard but she was modest and always mindful of the need for harmony. Her smile glossed over the past and carried with it the memories of the tours on which she accompanied Yukichi by ship to Shanghai, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Germany and so on. She would have gladly lived that part of her life again and would, despite everything that had happened, have chosen the same man.

Translated and adapted by Trevor Skingle from the German language article “120 years of Evangelism in the German speaking community of Yokohama and Tokyo: 1885 – 2005”, at

http://www.kreuzkirche-tokyo.jp/pdf/120jahre.pdf

Photographic images published before December 31st 1956, or photographed before 1946 and not published for 10 years thereafter, under jurisdiction of the Government of Japan, are considered to be public domain according to article 23 of old copyright law of Japan and article 2 of supplemental provision of copyright law of Japan.

Author profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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  1. NyNy
    December 24, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Aw, how lovely 🙂

    Like

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