Notable Deaths in 2021


From actors to scientists, authors to critics, Japan lost some major figures in various fields. A look at some of the people who passed away in 2021.

January 12

Handō Kazutoshi (90): Nonfiction writer

In his 1965 Nihon no ichiban nagai hi (trans. Japan’s Longest Day), Handō presented an in-depth look at the meetings on August 14 and 15, 1945, where Japan’s leaders met with Emperor Hirohito (posthumously Emperor Shōwa) to decide that Japan would surrender to the Allies and end World War II. This work secured his fame, being made into a popular film as well as receiving academic acclaim for being based on painstaking interviews with people who had been involved. Handō graduated from the University of Tokyo before entering the publisher Bungei Shunjū, where he edited works by Matsumoto Seichō and Shiba Ryōtarō as he pursued his personal interest in the history of the Pacific War and the Shōwa era (1926–89) as a whole. In 1995 he retired from editing work and turned to writing full-time. Also known for works like Nomonhan no natsu (Summer of the Nomonhan Incident) and Bakumatsu-shi (History of the End of the Shogunate).

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March 24

Koga Toshihiko (53): Jūdōka

The gold medalist in the men’s 71-kilogram class jūdō competition at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Koga was hailed as “the Sanshirō of the Heisei era” for his bold seoi shoulder throws and drops. His presence helped define the sport for Japan during his era. Born in Saga Prefecture, he came to Tokyo as a young teenager, training at the legendary Kōdōgakusha dōjō through his high school years. He also competed in the 1988 Seoul games and at Atlanta in 1996, when he won silver in the 78-kilogram class, and was the winner at the world championships three times, in 1989, 1991, and 1995. Became a trainer and coach after retiring in 2000, leading the Kogajuku dōjō and helping to coach the women’s national team.

Koga Toshihiko, at right, grapples with France’s Djamel Bouras in the gold-medal match on July 23, 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics. (© Jiji)
Koga Toshihiko, at right, grapples with France’s Djamel Bouras in the gold-medal match on July 23, 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics. (© Jiji)

Tanaka Kunie (88): Actor

After building a name for himself in domestically popular films like the Wakadaishō (Young Ace) series, he burst into true stardom with his role as Kuroita Gorō, the protagonist of the Kita no kuni kara (From the Northern Country) television drama that went on the air in 1981. Born in Gifu Prefecture, he learned acting at a training school for the Haiyūza troupe before making his big-screen debut in the 1957 Tōei feature Jun’ai monogatari (Story of Pure Love). He was a comical foil to Takakura Ken in the Abashiri bangaichi (Abashiri Prison) series of films that began in 1965 and showed a grittier side in his roles in the Jingi naki tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) string of yakuza films in 1973–74.

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April 1

Akasaki Isamu (92): Semiconductor engineer, Nobel laureate in physics

One of the three Japan-born winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics, presented “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.” Born in 1929 in Kagoshima Prefecture, he earned his science degree from Kyoto University before entering Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (today’s Panasonic), where he did LED research at the Tokyo laboratories. In the late 1980s, while he was a professor at Nagoya University, he and Amano Hiroshi, one of his former students, succeeded in developing high-quality gallium nitride crystals, a vital component for their LED breakthroughs to come. Akasaki was a leader in the field of applied physics in Japan for many years; in 2011 he received the Order of Culture.

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April 3

Tamura Masakazu (77): Actor

Known first in roles that took advantage of his good looks and nihilistic air, Tamura gained fame for his role, played with a light comedic touch, as the titular character in the Furuhata Ninzaburō detective drama series that ran on TV from 1994 through 2006. Born in Kyoto as the son of Bandō Tsumasaburō, star of the prewar and early postwar silver screen, Tamura made his own film debut in the 1961 Eien no hito (Immortal Love). In the 1970s and 1980s he turned to the small screen, appearing in numerous hit dramas.

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April 30

Tachibana Takashi (80): Journalist and critic

In the November 1974 issue of the monthly Bungei Shunjū, Tachibana published “Tanaka Kakuei kenkyū: Sono kinmyaku to jinmyaku” (A Study of Tanaka Kakuei: His Money and Personal Connections). This expose of the prime minister’s dirty financial dealings—based on the collection and analysis of huge amounts of company records and political funding reports, focusing on the sitting prime minister’s family businesses and political organization—forced the resignation of the entire Tanaka cabinet, bringing down the government. Born in 1940 in Nagasaki. Joined the publisher Bungei Shunjū as a reporter after graduating from the University of Tokyo, but left just two years later to go freelance. His reporting on the Japanese Communist Party, the country’s general trading firms and agricultural cooperatives, and other political and societal topics earned him high praise as a forerunner in the field of Japanese investigative journalism.

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July 23

Maskawa Toshihide (81): Particle physicist, Nobel laureate in physics

One of three Japan-born scientists to share the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature.” His 1973 work with Kobayashi Makoto, one of his co-laureates, built on previous research by Nicola Cabibbo to produce the Cabibbo-Kobayashi-Maskawa matrix explaining the interactions among quarks inside the atom. The predictions in their paper were borne out by the discovery of six types of quarks by 1995, shedding new light on their contributions. His March 1945 experience of the air raids on Nagoya as a young child inspired a lifelong pacifism; he was active in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, through which scientists sought to abolish atomic weapons and war, and was a vocal opponent of revisions to Japan’s “peace constitution” until his late years.

August 19

Chiba Shin’ichi (82): Actor

The action star, known internationally as Sonny Chiba, made a name for himself in Japan in the 1968–73 TV drama Kī hantā (Key Hunter). His action film outings in the 1970s earned him fame and popularity in Hollywood as well. Born Maeda Sadaho in Chiba Prefecture, he entered Nippon Sport Science University and trained to be an Olympic gymnast until injury kept him from that path and he went into acting instead. In the 1979 Sengoku Jieitai (G.I. Samurai), he did double duty as leading actor and the first “action director” to be so credited in a Japanese movie. The Japan Action Club he founded produced a number of future Japanese action stars. He passed away from pneumonia brought on by COVID-19.

Sonny Chiba appears at the Hawai’i International Film Festival in October 2005. (© Reuters/Kyōdō)
Sonny Chiba appears at the Hawai’i International Film Festival in October 2005. (© Reuters/Kyōdō)

September 7

Irokawa Daikichi (96): Historian

Irokawa’s research focused on the history of popular thought in early modern and modern Japan. His painstaking fieldwork and document surveys established the genre of “popular history,” focusing on the masses who had not figured largely in historical research to date. In 1968 he made the celebrated discovery of the “Itsukaichi Draft Constitution,” a document showing the spread of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement in Meiji Japan, in a storehouse in the town of Itsukaichi (now Akiruno), Tokyo. Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1925, he entered the Tokyo Imperial University only to be assigned to a naval air squadron as part of the wartime mobilization of the nation’s students. He returned to his historical studies after the war ended, graduating and becoming a junior high school teacher while also becoming involved in social movements. In 1967 he became a professor at Tokyo Keizai University. His work in the late 1970s on Minamata, the Kumamoto Prefecture city that saw large-scale mercury poisoning as a result of industrial pollution, culminated in his 1980 Minamata: Sono sabetsu to fūdo no rekishi (Minamata: A History of Discrimination and Cultural Climate).

September 24

Saitō Takao (84): Manga creator

Writer of the highly popular Golgo 13, a manga series about the titular hitman that went on for more than 50 years. Sometimes called Duke Tōgō, the mysterious ace sniper first appeared in Big Comic in 1968. In July 2021, when the 201st book volume was published, it earned Saitō a Guinness World Record for longest-running manga title. Born in Wakayama Prefecture, he initially took over the family business, a hairdresser’s shop, but found himself unable to walk away from manga, which he had been drawing since his student days. In 1955 he made his debut as a creator of manga for the rental book business in Osaka. In 1960 he established Saitō Productions, hiring a staff of artists to divide the labor of storyboarding, layout, drawing, and other tasks. Produced many other works, including Onihei hankachō (Onihei’s Crime Files), an adaptation of Ikenami Shōtarō’s series.

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October 14

Moriyama Mayumi (93): Former chief cabinet secretary

Soon after joining the cabinet of Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki as head of the Environment Agency in 1989, Moriyama was tapped to serve as Japan’s first female chief cabinet secretary after her predecessor in that spot, Yamashita Tokuo, stepped down following revelations of his extramarital affair. Born in Tokyo in 1927, Moriyama graduated from the Tsuda Juku training college (today Tsuda University) and matriculated at the University of Tokyo. In 1950, she became the first woman hired as a senior-track official at the Ministry of Labor. There she rose to become head of the bureau in charge of women’s and youth issues before entering politics in 1980, securing election to the House of Councillors from the Tochigi Prefecture district. During her three terms in the upper house and four terms in the House of Representatives, she also served as minister of education and minister of justice.

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October 24

Tsuboi Sunao (96): Hibakusha and peace activist

As head of both the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations and the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organizations, Tsuboi worked for the eradication of nuclear weapons. On August 6, 1945, as a 20-year-old student at the Hiroshima Higher Technical School (now Hiroshima University), he was exposed to the atomic bomb blast on his way to classes at a spot around 1.2 kilometers south of ground zero. He suffered severe burns on his face and upper body and spent more than 40 days on the edge of death before recovering. Following the war, he taught math at junior high school until his retirement in 1986, after which he engaged energetically in anti-nuclear-weapons advocacy. A frequent visitor to the United States to urge adoption of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, he met with Barack Obama when the US president came to Hiroshima on May 27, 2016.

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November 9

Setouchi Jakuchō (99): Author and Buddhist nun

At age 51, the bestselling author Setouchi Harumi shocked the nation when she suddenly took the tonsure and became a Buddhist nun in 1973. She continued writing, though, and her translation into modern Japanese of The Tale of Genji, which she undertook at age 70, sparked a “Genji boom” in the 1990s. Through her essay-writing and countless speeches and sermons, she continued to present her thinking on “how to live a human life.” She was born in 1922 in Tokushima Prefecture. While a student at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University she married a lecturer; they moved to Beijing, where she gave birth to their daughter. Returning to Japan after the war, she fell in love with one of her husband’s students and left her family behind to live with him in Kyoto. In 1950, after her divorce was finalized, she headed to Tokyo to begin her writing career. She wrote for Niwa Fumio’s literary magazine Bungakusha and in 1956 published her debut novel, Itai kutsu (Painful Shoes); in the following year she won the first of many literary awards she would garner, including the Women’s Literature Prize for the 1963 Natsu no owari (trans. The End of Summer), an exploration of her own romantic relations with men. Her 1963 Kashin (Center of a Flower) was decried as pornographic, but throughout her career she never shied away from frank treatments of sexuality. In 2006 she received the Order of Culture. To the end of her life she remained politically active, opposing the death penalty and urging Japan to abandon nuclear power.

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December 18

Kanda Sayaka (35): Actress

Born in 1986 to the actor Kanda Masaki and the superstar singer Matsuda Seiko. In 1999, while a student at the Japanese school in Los Angeles, she auditioned for a child role in David Greenspan’s short film Bean Cake, which won a Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2001. After writing a song for her mother’s 1999 album Eien no shōjo (Eternal Girl) under the pen name Alice, she made her official debut in Japanese show business in 2001. She released numerous albums as a singer and appeared in musicals. In 2014 she provided the Japanese voice for Anna in the hugely popular animated Disney feature Frozen. Her death was due to massive injuries suffered in a fall from a hotel room window in Sapporo, Hokkaidō; police are investigating it as a possible suicide.

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(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Actor Tanaka Kunie, left, in April 1999 © Kyōdō, and Setouchi Jakuchō in January 2018. © Jiji.)

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