Kimi-Chan – Tokyo, Japan - Atlas Obscura

Kimi-Chan

This sculpture bears a tragic backstory that may have inspired a hauntingly beautiful children's song. 

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In Tokyo’s upscale Azabu-Jūban district, a sculpture of a young girl, called Kimi-chan, bears a tragic backstory.

“The Red Shoes” is a popular children’s song known for its hauntingly bittersweet melody and lyrics. Written in 1922 by Ujo Noguchi and Nagayo Moto’ori, the song tells the story of a girl who wore wearing red shoes and was “taken away by a stranger” in Yokohama. (It is unrelated to the Danish fairy tale of the same name.)

Although the first part makes it sound like it’s about abduction, the singer goes on to wonder if the girl’s eyes have turned blue in the stranger’s country, concluding the song by stating “I think of her whenever I see red shoes and strangers.” Strangers, in this case, refers to foreigners; Yokohama was a port city that thrived from trade with America back then.

Reportedly, the song was based on a true story of the writer’s acquaintance. According to that, a single mother named Kayo Iwasaki moved to Hokkaido in 1903 with her daughter, Kimi Sano, but their life there turned out to be so hard that she could no longer raise the girl on her own. Eventually, she decided that she had to leave Kimi in the care of American missionary Charles W. Huett and his wife, who promised to take her back to the United States and raise her there.

However, what awaited the girl was a tragedy. Before the Huetts could sail for America, Kimi caught tuberculosis and had to be taken in at an orphanage in Azabu, where she died shortly after at the age of nine. Kayo never found out about her daughter’s death, believing for life that Kimi grew up to be a fine lady and had a good life abroad.

The story came to light in the early 1970s when newspapers published it as told by Kimi’s younger half-sister Sono. It stirred hearts, and quickly became a sensation across the country. But it also ignited a still-ongoing debate on whether Sono’s claims are legitimate or not. Some, including the songwriter’s son, argue that “The Red Shoes” is largely fictional and so, to a degree, is the story.

Whatever the case is, the untold story of Kimi and the bittersweet song that she supposedly inspired remain popular. In 1989, the district of Azabu commemorated the unsung “girl with red shoes” by installing a statue of Kimi-chan on the edge of a small public park.

In 1979, a statue inspired by the ”girl wearing red shoes” was erected in Yamashita Park in Yokohama, commemorating its association with the song. A smaller copy of the statue was also installed at Yokohama Station a few years later.

Know Before You Go

Even though the song is not well-known outside Japan, the statue may also be of special interest to fans of classic 1990s anime, as the Kimi-Chan sculpture has made an appearance in Sailor Moon, which takes place in Azabu-Jūban.

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February 15, 2023

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