It's Prime Time for Japan's Barbara Walters, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

UPDATED 11/30/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/30/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

When she was a little girl in Tokyo during World War II, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi wanted to be a spy—until a friend informed her that spies have to keep quiet. So Tetsuko gave it up; she liked to talk too much. Kuroyanagi, now 48, eventually found a profession where she could talk all she wanted—and be paid handsomely for it. Today she is the most popular TV personality in Japan, the star of three hit shows on three separate networks. Every weekday afternoon 10 million viewers tune in Tetsuko's Room, Japan's first and most successful daily talk show. Each Thursday night at 9 she co-hosts Best 10, a sort of Hit Parade with an audience of 35 million, and at 7:30 p.m. Fridays Kuroyanagi shares the spotlight with a 100-member orchestra on Japan's top-rated classical program, Music Plaza.

"Many people say that I am a Japanese Barbara Walters," allows Tetsuko, whose memoirs are a current runaway best-seller. "But she is very good with politicians and I am not. I don't like politicians." In fact, Kuroyanagi is more the Japanese Merv; her specialty is making the guest—anyone from Yul Brynner to the Prime Minister to a 9-year-old Kabuki actor—feel comfortable. "My guests know I would never treat them badly," she explains. "I never ask a question that digs." For a very good reason—it is considered impolite by viewers.

Even though she makes a reported $430,000 a year from her work on the tube, Kuroyanagi does not live like a U.S. TV star. She does drive a $26,000 blood-red Mercedes, but she lives alone in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo. "I'm not like a Hollywood actress with a 20-room house and three pools," she says.

The housewives who make up her daytime audience gossip about Tetsuko's love life; she has never married. "Yes, I have a boyfriend," she says, "but I should have some secrets." Then she adds with a mischievous grin, "I used to look for a knight on a white charger...then a gray charger...what would you think of a donkey?"

Kuroyanagi's decidedly Occidental brand of humor has made her controversial in a culture where few women are outspoken. "She's too aggressive," a housewife critic complains. "Tetsuko has such a strong character," marvels an admiring playwright, "she's almost a foreigner."

Totto-chan, as she was called by her parents (a symphony orchestra concertmaster and a trained opera singer), did not grow up like other Japanese in a rigid school system. At 6, she became an ochikobore—a dropout—after being branded a "bad influence" by her teacher and asked to leave. Totto-chan's misdeed: staring out the classroom window.

"If I hadn't been removed from that school," insists Tetsuko, "my character would have been totally different. I would have learned to obey without asking any questions." Her mother moved her to a progressive school held in six abandoned railroad cars and presided over by a maverick principal who mixed handicapped and normal children, let his pupils study subjects in whatever order they wanted, and encouraged them to swim in the nude. "I promised to be a teacher in his school," Totto-chan recalls, "but it burned to the ground during the air raids in 1945."

Tetsuko was an opera student at Tokyo's Toyo Music College ("I couldn't remember the long arias"), but in 1954 she spotted a newspaper ad for actors placed by the government-owned network. Out of 6,000 applicants, she and a dozen others were hired. Launched in 1975, Tetsuko's Room provided a built-in audience for her ninth book. In it she makes an inspirational plea for more relaxed education in a country where children spend only 16 percent of their time playing. Published last March, the book has already sold in excess of 3.5 million copies—probably more than any other in the history of Japanese publishing. Its title: Totto-chan, the Little Girl Who Stared Out the Window.

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