The Little Girl in the Red Shoes:

Nostalgia, Memory, And the Growth of Narrative

Kelly Hansen, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Kumamoto University [About | Email]

Volume 20, Issue 3 (Article 7 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 December 2020.


This study explores how Japan’s legend of the little girl in the red shoes has grown from a popular children’s song of the 1920s to a national narrative promoting traditional family values and international goodwill. Statues and markers stretching from Hokkaido to Shizuoka have embedded the narrative in the very landscape of the country, but references to the legend are most prominent in Yokohama, the purported city of the girl’s departure from Japan. The song lyrics speculate about the fate of the young girl, taken abroad by a foreigner. In a 1979 publication, journalist Kikuchi Hiroshi revived interested in the narrative when he asserted the song was based on the life of one Iwasaki Kimi. Although later scholarship has shown Kikuchi’s claims to be largely inaccurate, this has had little impact on the growth of the narrative in the cultural imaginary. Particularly in Yokohama, where images of the girl and her red shoes abound on everything from sightseeing busses to souvenir cookies, the narrative simultaneously invokes nostalgia for a time in Japan prior to modernisation and Westernisation, while promoting Yokohama’s contemporary image as a futuristic, international port city.

Keywords: akai kutsu, red shoes, Noguchi Ujō, Yokohama, nostalgia

 “Akai kutsu” (Red Shoes) by Noguchi Ujō (1921)

The girl in the red shoes
was taken away by a foreigner.
Boarding a ship at Yokohama Pier,
she was taken away by a foreigner.
I wonder if her eyes have turned blue
living in the foreigner’s land.
Every time I see red shoes, I think of her.
Every time I meet a foreigner, I think of her.

In 2006, the Bunkachō (Agency for Cultural Affairs) conducted a poll to rank the top 100 children’s songs in Japan. Not surprising, ‘Akai kutsu,’ with music composed by Motoori Nagayo, and lyrics by Noguchi Ujō, was among the songs chosen (‘Oyako’ 2007) [1]. On one hand, the lyrics evoke a sense of mystery and wonder for the exotic experiences awaiting the girl abroad. Yet the notion that her eyes may have turned blue—a transformation that would erase a key physical marker of her Japanese identity—also arouses feelings of apprehension over rapid Westernisation and loss of traditional cultural values in the early twentieth century.

Noguchi himself never offered any explanation for the cryptic lyrics [2]. ‘Akai kutsu’ is typically classified as a children’s song, but is composed in a minor pentatonic key, recalling enka ballad music which emerged in the early twentieth century. Christine Yano notes that enka, which typically emphasises themes of nostalgia and loss, ‘sounds timelessly old… The erasure of passing time is in fact part of its attraction’ (2002: 3-4). For many decades, ‘Akai kutsu’ remained just this: a nostalgic, seemingly timeless children’s song passed down from parent to child. In the late 1970s, however, the narrative surrounding the little girl in the red shoes took on new dimensions when journalist Kikuchi Hiroshi began to investigate claims by a woman named Oka Sono, who declared the girl in the red shoes to be her older sister. Kikuchi’s interviews with Oka and subsequent investigation into the purported true story behind the song resulted in a 1978 documentary which aired on Hokkaido Television titled ‘The Girl in the Red Shoes’ (Akai kutsu ga haiteta onna no ko), and a book publication of the same name the following year.

Although numerous critics have challenged the veracity of Kikuchi’s work, the general public has embraced his version of the story with great enthusiasm. This may be due in part to the timing of Kikuchi’s publication in the late 1970s, when Japan was in the midst of what Millie Creighton refers to as a ‘retro boom.’ Despite high economic growth in the postwar period and the comfortable western lifestyles which urban dwellers in particular were enjoying by this time, the country’s rapid cultural transformations also left many with a sense of estrangement from their traditional heritage. Creighton’s research illustrates how this cultural rupture during the retro boom came to be embodied in a nostalgia for the furusato (native place, hometown, or home village), which ‘is most frequently symbolised by rustic rural scenery, even for those who were raised in large cities’ (1997: 241). In other words, the furusato signifies not so much a direct personal connection to a physical location, but rather a means of linking oneself to a collective cultural heritage. Creighton shows how the travel industry capitalised on the retro boom by marketing nostalgia through campaigns offering domestic travel packages to remote regions of the country, where travelers might encounter a seemingly pristine version of Japanese culture prior to Westernisation and postwar transformation (ibid: 244-51).

Similar to these travel campaigns, Kikuchi’s version of the red shoes narrative also offers those who embrace the story an opportunity to participate in the recovery of a collective cultural heritage. Through statues, memorials, publications, and cultural products that have emerged across the country since Kikuchi’s publication, the story of the little girl in the red shoes has come to be associated not with feelings of apprehension over Westernisation and loss of traditional culture, but instead with positive themes of familial values and goodwill. This appropriation of the red shoes narrative reflects what Svetlana Boym describes as restorative nostalgia. In contrast to reflective nostalgia, which focuses on the past and emphasises loss and longing, restorative nostalgia seeks to ‘rebuild’ and ‘patch up memory gaps… manifest[ing] itself in total reconstruction of monuments of the past’ (2001: 41). This study will examine the process by which the Kikuchi narrative has reconstructed the story of the little girl in the red shoes as a restorative form of nostalgia. Following an analysis of Kikuchi’ publication and critical reception of his work, I trace the growth of the narrative through monuments erected in cities and villages across Japan, as well as subsequent publications, souvenirs, and other cultural products. Finally, I consider the role of the red shoes narrative in the city of Yokohama, the location of the girl’s purported departure from Japan, focusing particularly on the seeming contradiction which she represents as both a nostalgic symbol of Japan’s prewar heritage, and an icon promoting Yokohama’s contemporary image as a prosperous, futuristic city.

Who was the little girl in red shoes?

Fifty-one years after Noguchi created the lyrics to ‘Akai kutsu,’ Oka Sono, the daughter of Suzuki Shirō and his wife Kayo (née Iwasaki Kayo), contacted the Hokkaido Newspaper (Hokkaidō shinbun), and declared herself to be the younger sister of the little girl in the red shoes, whom she named as Iwasaki Kimi. In November, 1973, the newspaper published an article based on her account. Oka herself, born approximately ten years after her sister was purported to have left Japan, had never met Kimi, but had only heard about her from their mother. By going public, she hoped that she might be able to locate her older sister. Based on second-hand information provided by Oka and research into archives around the country, journalist Kikuchi pieced together a biography for Kimi, which he recounts in detail in his 1979 publication.

According to Kikuchi, Kimi was born in 1902 in Shizuoka Prefecture to Iwasaki Kayo, an 18-year-old single mother. The identity of Kimi’s father, listed only as deceased on the birth certificate, was unclear. A few years after her daughter’s birth, Iwasaki Kayo married Suzuki Shirō, from Aomori prefecture. How the two met is unclear, but Kikuchi speculates that they shared an interest in socialist movements taking place in Hokkaido at that time. There is also a possibility that Kayo was stigmatised as a single mother in her hometown, and wished to relocate to a different part of the country. Suzuki and his new wife were planning a fresh start on a communal farm in Hokkaido, a lifestyle that would have been too harsh for Kimi, who was a small and rather sickly child. Kikuchi speculates that through his studies, Suzuki may have met foreigners who were promoting social movements in the area. It was therefore decided to have her adopted by an American missionary couple named Hewett or Huit (in katakana, hyetto), who were preparing to return to the United States. This story of Kimi’s purported departure from Japan was recounted many years later to Noguchi Ujō, who allegedly became acquainted with Suzuki when the two men were both working at the same newspaper company in Sapporo. Noguchi purportedly heard the story of Kimi from Suzuki, and used it as the basis for his lyrics.

However, Oka’s hopes that Kikuchi’s investigative work might lead to her sister’s whereabouts were shattered when Kikuchi uncovered a 1911 death certificate issued in Tokyo for nine-year-old Sano Kimi. The family name of Sano links Kimi to Sano Yasukichi, an acquaintance of Kayo’s from Shizuoka who had added Kimi to his family register as an adopted daughter for reasons which are unclear. Kikuchi speculates that Sano likely played a role in the plan to have Kimi adopted, but when the little girl eventually became too ill to make the long voyage, she was left behind in an orphanage in Tokyo, where she later died of tuberculosis. Kikuchi suggests that Sano, and perhaps even Kayo’s husband Suzuki, may have known of Kimi’s death but hid the truth from her mother. This accorded with Oka’s memories that her mother died believing Kimi had been adopted and taken to America. 

Challenges to Kikuchi's claims

The above version of Kimi’s life, as presented in Kikuchi’s book, includes dates, photos, and references to transcripts from family registries. The work is narrated in first person, allowing the reader to follow Kikuchi through the painstaking process of his investigation, lending the work a tone of journalistic credibility and authenticity. However, the book uses a combination of narrative and dialogue, filling in missing or speculative portions of the story with recreated scenes and imagined conversations drawn from second-hand memories recounted to Kikuchi by Oka and others. This makes for compelling reading, but because of Kikuchi’s liberal interpretations, it is best interpreted not as a factual, journalistic account, but rather a work of fiction.

In the decades since Kikuchi’s version was published, the veracity of his claims has become an ongoing source of debate by scholars, including Kamei Hideo (2012) and Fukuchi Jun’ichi (2014). The biggest challenge, however, has come from novelist Ai Shōsuke, who spent over twenty years investigating Kikuchi’s claims, as well as each of the sites where monuments have been erected following his 1979 publication (2007; 2013). These include the port of Yokohama, which is mentioned in the song, Kimi’s birthplace in Shizuoka, the orphanage in Tokyo where she was purported to have died, and various locations in Aomori prefecture and Hokkaidō where Kayo and her husband, or Noguchi, were said to have lived. Ai’s research resulted in a 2007 monograph, Fabrication:  the [Girl] Who Didn’t Wear Red Shoes (Netsuzō: haite nakatta akai kutsu), which uses copious detail to debunk Kikuchi’s version of the story. Ai asserts that Kikuchi frequently relies on contradictory statements from those he interviews, and points out a number of inaccuracies, namely, that the dates and locations around which Kikuchi builds his narrative are simply not borne out by documentary evidence.

But if the song is not based on the life of Kimi, then what might be the inspiration? Ai suggests that the lyrics may be interpreted as a political statement not modeled on any particular individual. Noguchi was part of the first wave of writers of children’s literature starting in the 1910s who rejected didactic tales in favour of original stories focused on realistic descriptions of everyday life in the modern world, so the notion of a children’s song having an underlying political message is quite plausible. In the 1920s, the practice of writing proletarian literature under the banner of children’s literature would become increasingly common (Perry 2014: 12-69). Because laws of the time did not permit direct criticism of governmental policy, Ai’s interpretation argues for the image of a girl in red shoes leaving the country as a symbol of socialist movements losing momentum in Japan.

Ai is not the only critic to offer an alternative analysis for the source of the song’s origin. In his 1997 monograph on Noguchi’s work, Nara Tatsuo provides a detailed comparison of the ‘Akai kutsu’ lyrics in relation to eleven other songs by Noguchi on the topic of orphaned children, or partings between parents and children. In his detailed discussion of ‘Akai kutsu,’ Nara makes reference to the Kikuchi version of the story, but does not discuss it in detail, simply stating that its veracity cannot be confirmed or discredited. This suggests that the version of the story promulgated by Kikuchi had permeated public thought to such an extent by the late 1990s that it was not possible to provide an analysis of the song without referencing it. Nara, however, interprets the unusual references to the foreigner and the fashionable red shoes as images that may have been chosen to stand out in the listener’s mind. He emphasises that future encounters with foreigners do not cause the narrator of the song simply to remember (omoidasu) the girl, but to think about (kangaeru), or ponder her fate. This suggests that the lyrics are not simply intended to tell a story, but to encourage the reader to reflect on its themes. On one hand, the girl with the red shoes might be seen as a symbol of modernity, fully embracing Western culture, but she also represents one of the most vulnerable in society whom the nation state has failed to protect. Although Nara is not overtly critical of the Kikuchi version, his analysis accords with Ai in suggesting that the song is best interpreted as a political statement rather than a narrative based on a particular individual (114-135).

The argument for a politically-based interpretation is further supported by the fact that Noguchi composed very similar songs with clear political themes, most notably ‘Aoi me no ningyō’ (Blue-eyed dolls), written in 1921:

This blue-eyed doll born in America was made of celluloid
 When she reached the port in Japan, her eyes were full of tears
I don’t understand the language here
What will I do if I get lost?
Kind girls in Japan, please be kind and play with me.
Please be kind and play with me.

Similar to the lyrics of ‘Akai kutsu,’ the reference to blue eyes highlights the exotic foreignness of the doll. The lyrics also reflect apprehension over the doll’s fate in a foreign country, in this case Japan. Unlike the ambiguity of the lyrics of ‘Akai kutsu,’ however, it is difficult to overlook the political overtones of these lyrics, written at a time when U.S.-Japan relations were deteriorating. While the doll’s tears suggest sorrow over worsening relations, her appeal for girls in Japan to ‘be kind and play with [her]” offers a direct appeal for further exchange and negotiation between the two nations. This song would later be appropriated for a 1927 goodwill program between the U.S. and Japan instigated by the Committee on World Friendship Among Children, which involved an exchange of dolls between the two countries. A total of 12,000 dolls were sent from the U.S., with the intent of having one in every elementary school across the country. To reciprocate, Japan sent 58 friendship dolls (tōrei ningyō) to the United States (Kamei, 2012: 3).

Image One: One of the few blue-eyed dolls still in existence today. This one is currently on display at the Yokohama Doll Museum (Yokohama ningyō no ie). Each doll originally came with a passport, identifying her as a messenger of friendship, and signed by ‘Uncle Sam.’

The growth of the red shoes story as a national narrative

As Ai, Nara, and other critics have demonstrated, there is good reason to question Kikuchi’s version of the red shoes story, and instead interpret the song as a work composed within the context of other socialist-themed children’s works which Noguchi produced around the same time. By the time these alternative interpretations were published, however, public sentiment had already moved ahead to establish monuments to the little girl in the red shoes based on the Kikuchi version. Unlike extended critical works, whose arguments involve detailed analysis of archival documents, a statue or memorial can significantly simplify the narrative by focusing on one event or theme from the story, and generate public interest by relating this event or theme directly to residents of the town or city where it is located. This section traces the expansion of the red shoes story from a nostalgic children’s song to a national narrative through the establishment of statues and memories, as well as the rise of publications and other cultural products. As I will show, these markers begin with events and themes closely linked to the song lyrics and the Kikuchi narrative, but later extend to broader themes as the narrative expands.

Red shoes and Westernisation: Yokohama

The first statue connected to the red shoes narrative was erected in 1979 in Yamashita Park, Yokohama. It depicts a young girl sitting pensively with knees drawn up to her chest, looking out at the sea beyond Yokohama Pier, the harbour where the girl in the song would have departed Japan. The statue is easy to find, but is situated just off the main walkway through the park, highlighting the solitary nature of the image. The statue makes no direct mention of any aspects of the narrative introduced by Kikuchi. Titled simply ‘The Girl in the Red Shoes’ (Akai kutsu haiteta onna no ko), the description on the plaque suggests that the song and narrative were sufficiently embedded in the collective memory of Yokohama citizens and other Japanese visitors so that no additional explanation was required.

Image Two: Red shoes statue at Yamashita Park (near Yokohama Pier), erected by the Red Shoes Memorial Cultural Agency.

Image 3: The same statue, taken from the back of the statue, looking out across Yokohama Bay.

Three years after the first statue was installed in Yamashita Park, a smaller version was erected at the south exit of Yokohama Station. Today, it has been moved and stands in the central area of the station. Compared to the first statue in Yamashita Park, this is a tiny image, flanked by two nineteenth-century style gas lamp replicas, symbols of Yokohama’s status as the first city in Japan to install Western-style street lamps in 1872. By setting these two models together, daily commuters and visitors are reminded of Yokohama’s status as the city where new signs of Western modernity first appeared is Japan.

Image 4: This small statue in Yokohama Station is a replica of the larger one in Yamashita Park. It is easy to miss, as it is dwarfed by the larger gas lamp replicas. Today it has become a popular meeting spot.

Image 5: Close-up of the statue in Yokohama Station. Positioned in the centre thoroughfare of the station, most passengers will pass by when entering or exiting through the central exits, or when changing lines.

Reinforcing mother-child bonds: Shizuoka

Following the Yokohama statues, the next one to appear was in 1986 in Shizuoka City, Kimi’s purported birthplace. The statue, titled ‘Red Shoes Mother and Child Statue’ (Akai kutsu boshizō), is located in Nihondaira, a scenic vantage point overlooking Shimizu Port. The girl is depicted in braids and western clothing, holding the hand of her mother, dressed in kimono, kneeling down and looking intently at the child. The description on the plaque gives a brief overview of Kimi’s life based on the Kikuchi version. According to the official city Website, the motivation for the statue came following Kikuchi’s 1979 publication. Amid strong public sentiment, funds were raised through contributions which came from citizens around the country, to create a statue that would reunite mother and daughter in their hometown after 81 years of separation (‘Shizuoka-shi’ 2020). The statue of the two together transforms feelings of loss associated with Kimi’s departure from Japan depicted in the song lyrics, into a positive image of the strong bonds between mother and child, and serves as a reminder of the central link between Shizuoka City and the red shoes narrative.

Appeal for charity: Azabu-Jūban, Tokyo

Three years later in 1989, a fourth memorial statue was established in Azabu-Jūban, Tokyo, near the site of the orphanage where Kimi is alleged to have died. The title of the statue, ‘Kimi-chan,’ is an endearing way of referring to a child whom one knows, suggesting that Kimi is a member of the community. This sentiment is reinforced in the plaque on the platform below the statue, which gives a short biography of Kimi’s life based on the Kikuchi version and asserts that the little girl in the red shoes has found a permanent home in Azabu-Jūban. Although the description on the plaque echoes the sentiments of the Shizuoka statue in stating that it is a symbol of the strong love between mother and child, over the years this memorial has become primarily associated with charity contributions. This is said to have developed spontaneously, when residents noticed coins being placed at the base of the statue, and decided to install a box, making it a regular place to offer donations during annual festivals in the neighbourhood. According to the district’s Website, funds collected are used to support disadvantaged children around the world (‘Azabu-Jūban Shōtengai’ 2014). Similar to the Shizuoka statue, this monument has transformed Kimi’s allegedly lonely death at the orphanage into a positive image that promotes charity, and even allows residents to participate in the narrative annually through the act of making contributions.

Image 6: ‘Kimi-chan’ in Azabu-Jūban, Tokyo, established 1989. Her red shoes are reinterpreted as a red dress, possibly to make the small statue stand out. The small box to the left of the statue was added later for charity donations.

Image 7: Taken from across the street, the statue at Azabu-Jūban is not big, but easy to spot because of the prominent red dress.

A mother’s sacrifice: Rusutsu Village, Hokkaido

Two years later in 1991, two statues based on the red shoes story were created in Rusutsu Village, Hokkaido where Kayo and her husband Suzuki Shirō were said to have established a homestead immediately after separating from Kimi. These statues shift the focus of the narrative from the perspective of the child to that of the mother. The first statue, titled ‘Statue of a Mother’s Longing’ (Haha omoi zō) depicts a solitary seated girl, with hands folded in her lap. The image of Kimi in this location, a place where she is never alleged to have lived or even visited, reinforces the notion of Kimi as an ongoing source of longing to the mother who lived here. In the same park but some distance away is a statue of Kayo titled ‘Statue of a Pioneering Mother’ (Kaitaku no bozō). This one shows a stern-looking, thin woman, standing tall with a staff in one hand and shading her eyes with the other. As a mother who gave up her child so that she might join in the pioneering development of the village, Kayo is depicted positively, a citizen who puts country above family. As such, she is a constant reminder to residents of the sacrifices of those who established their town.

Family values and separation: Otaru, Ajigasawa, and Hakodate Cities

The next two statues created, in Otaru, Hokkaido and Ajigasawa, Aomori Prefecture, depict Kimi together with her mother and step-father. ‘Statue of Parents and Child’ (Oyako no zō, 2007) in Otaru has the parents seated while the child stands just in front of them, with one hand grasping her mother’s. All three are smiling faintly and grouped closely together, suggesting an intimate family scene. The 2008 statue erected in Ajigasawa, ‘Statue of Parents and Child’ (Oyako san’ninzō), depicts all three in seated positions, with Kimi in front clearly identifiable by her red shoes, the only colour in the statue. She leans back against her mother, while her hand stretches out to grasp her father’s as she gazes up into his face. Again, the impression is of an ideal, intimate parent-child family unit. These statues stretch the narrative beyond the Kikuchi version, as the three did not allegedly live together in these locations. The following year, in 2009, a Hakodate statue commemorating the site where Kimi and her mother were said to have formally separated was created. This statue depicts a solitary image of a child in western clothes, but is easily identifiable as Kimi because of her distinctive red shoes. In this statue, she stands with a small bag in her left hand, looking resolute as if prepared for her departure.

International goodwill: San Diego

The year 2009 also saw the first statue connected to the red shoes narrative erected abroad, in San Diego, USA, which established a sister-city relationship with Yokohama in 1957. The statue stands in front of a large bronze friendship bell, presented to San Diego by Yokohama in 1958, in recognition of the new relationship established between the two cities, and commemorating the centennial anniversary of formal relations between Japan and the United States. The plaque on the statue does not provide any information about the red shoes narrative, so the image of the girl in the red shoes was presumably intended as a gift in which a well-known symbol of Yokohama was offered in friendship to a sister city.

The origins of the song: Sapporo

Finally, in 2015, a memorial marker was placed in Yamahana Park, Sapporo City. The front of the plaque gives a portion of the lyrics from the song, while the back of the plaque commemorates the connection between the ‘Akai kutsu’ lyrics by Noguchi, and the city of Sapporo, where he worked as a journalist. Although not linked directly to any event in the narrative, the marker recognises Noguchi as the songwriter, and links the city of Sapporo directly to the red shoes narrative.

Texts, publications, tourist markers, and souvenirs

In addition to the various statues and monuments erected following Kikuchi’s publication, numerous publications and other cultural products have emerged. To commemorate the establishment of the first statue in Yamashita Park, Yokohama, the Red Shoes Memorial Cultural Agency in Yokohama published My Red Shoes (Watashi no akai kutsu 1979), a collection of 30 tributes by residents of Yokohama. Each contributor describes his or her childhood memories in relation to the song. Many of the contributions are from older residents who recall the melody within the context of wartime or postwar memories. Although a few have negative associations, the vast majority are positive, related to nostalgic childhood memories or family events. One contributor links the song with memories of a precious pair of red shoes given to her as a child—shoes she loved, but that hurt her feet so much she cried (59-60). This bittersweet memory parallels emotions evoked by the song, in which images of Westernisation can be both fascinating and disturbing. Another contributor recalls learning the song as a child, and then decades later, overhearing her own children singing along to a cassette recording. She is eager to recount her childhood memories to her children, reinforcing how the song contributes to the perpetuation of a collective memory (36-8). A third contributor, born in 1955, admits to being perplexed by the lyrics as a child because she misheard the term ijin (foreigner), a word which had become archaic by the postwar period, as ninjin, or ‘carrot.’  The song evokes no direct personal associations for this younger contributor, who grew up hearing the song, but interprets its meaning through her reading of Kikuchi’s book, which she asserts added greatly to the ‘appeal’ (miryoku) of the red shoes narrative (62-4).

Numerous writers have capitalised on the growth of the red shoes narrative to create settings that evoke nostalgic images from Yokohama’s history. Aki Yōko’s Red Shoes Legends: Tales of Yokohama (Akai kutsu densetsu: Yokohama monogatari 1995), is a collection of eight stories set in modern times which uses traditional locations around the city including Chinatown, dating back to 1859, the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery (Yokohama gaikokujin bochi) established in 1870, and the New Grand Hotel, where General MacArthur first stayed after arriving in Japan. Similarly, Ayano Masaru’s Girl in the Red Shoes (Akai kutsu haiteta onna no ko 2009) is a collection of stories aimed at juvenile readers which incorporate key images from the red shoes narrative including the foreigner, red shoes, and blue-eyed dolls, to recount contemporary stories. In The Yokohama Red Shoes Murder (Yokohama akai kutsu satsujin jiken) by Ishikawa Shinsuke (2002), the novel opens with the ‘Akai kutsu’ melody leaking into the hallway from a hotel room where a murder has just taken place. This opening creates an atmosphere in which this seemingly traditional legend is set against the backdrop of the contemporary Minato Mirai District, creating an image of Yokohama that is both timeless and futuristic.

A final publication worth noting is Akai kutsu, a collection of illustrations created by the Tokyo Illustrators Society in 2004, including drawings by members of the association, and reflecting twenty-first century associations with the red shoes narrative. Similar to the 1979 collections of reminisces published after the erection of the first statue in Yokohama, contributors to this publication apply their own personal experiences or impressions of the red shoes story. However, unlike the earlier 1979 publication, in which most contributors drew upon personal memories, often relating the song to bittersweet memories during the wartime or postwar periods, this publication is upbeat, colourful, and contemporary.  One illustration depicts a young woman in a hotel room trying on a pair of newly purchased high-heeled red shoes, with a suitcase by her side indicating an imminent departure. In the hotel window behind her is the futuristic skyline of Minato Mirai, or the ‘Harbour of the Future.’ In the image, this young twenty-first century woman has become the new girl in the red shoes, possibly off to an adventure in a foreign land.  Another image depicts an alien spaceship visiting Minato Mirai and a little girl disembarking from the ship, suggesting the red shoes narrative has become increasing forward-thinking in recent years.

Image 8: Skyline of Minato Mirai. Most of the buildings seen here were built in the 1980s and 90s. The iconic Intercontinental Hotel with its rounded shape imitating a ship’s sail, stands to the left of the ferris wheel.

Although the narrative of the red shoes has been firmly planted in the landscape throughout the country, markers are most prominent in Yokohama. Even a casual visitor cannot help but notice all manner of red shoes images, from souvenir cookies and keychains, to the brightly decorated red shoes busses that shuttle tourists to popular sightseeing spots around town. By riding the busses or purchasing the souvenirs, visitors to the city also participate in the red shoes narrative.

Image 9: Red Shoes shuttle bus for tourists in Yokohama.

Image 10: Souvenirs on sale at a shop in the Minato Mirai district of Yokohama.


Encountering the red shoes narrative in the landscape of contemporary Japan, perhaps by offering a donation at the Azabu-Jūban festival, or by touring Yokohama on a red shoes bus, offers the possibility of connecting with Japan’s prewar cultural heritage in a way that was not possible in the years directly following the end of the war. One of the key goals of Allied forces in Japan during the occupation was erasure of all references to imperial Japan through censorship of films, novels, and other media publications. Christian Galan argues that the policy of ‘textbook ink blotting’ (suminuri kyōkasho), one of the first measures undertaken by occupation forces, was responsible for creating information gaps among children, as it required those who were educated in the postwar period to effectively forget or erase wartime memories. This policy also ‘hindered the development of a cultural memory’ linking postwar Japan with its prewar culture (2008: 201). Michael Lucken (2008) has examined how the removal of pre-war commemorative statues and monuments, designed to rupture the connection between Shinto and the state, left gaps in the physical landscape of the country as well. Because of these gaps, it should not be surprising that pseudohistory has at times guided the growth of cultural memories such as the red shoes narrative.

This paper has traced the origins and transformations of the cultural narrative associated with the little girl in the red shoes, beginning with the lyrics composed by Noguchi Ujō in 1921, and finding renewed interest following Kikuchi Hiroshi’s 1979 publication through critical writings, fiction, personal memoirs, statues, memorials, souvenirs, and illustrated works. The fact that carefully researched and well-documented challenges to Kikuchi’s claims have had little impact on growing public interest shows the power of this narrative as an enduring site of cultural memory. Kamei believes that the majority of Japanese citizens today are aware that the Kikuchi version of the red shoes narrative is rooted in fiction, although this does not appear to diminish their enthusiasm for the story. This may be in part because the emergence of markers and statues around the country helps to lend the narrative a sense of permanence and credibility. This accords with Boym’s interpretation of restorative nostalgia, which ‘does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition’ (2001: xviii).

In her study of the rural travel boom of the 1970s and 80s, Creighton warns of the dangers of commodifying the desire for nostalgia. She asserts that by offering a commercial imitation of ‘“real Japan,” marketing campaigns and consumer products further problematise that concept’ by increasing fears over the loss of Japanese identity in the midst of ongoing internationalisation (251). Creighton raises valid concerns about the commercialisation of nostalgia. However, Boym notes that nostalgia can also expose the ‘fantasies of the age,’ which may yet be realised in the future because ‘one is nostalgic not for the past the way it was, but for the past the way it could have been. It is this past perfect that one strives to realise in the future’ (351). The red shoes narrative as it circulates today embodies nostalgia not for the life that Iwasaki Kimi actually lived, but for the one she might have lived. Yokohama, as the port from which she might have departed, benefits from this narrative because it reinforces the city’s heritage as a site of exotic Westernisation in the early twentieth century. Unlike rural tourism campaigns of the retro boom, which highlighted the gap between a pre-Westernised Japan and late twentieth-century Westernised lifestyles, the red shoes narrative contributes to a sense of continuity by highlighting Yokohama’s status as a futuristic, Westernised city in both prewar and postwar periods. The little girl who left Japan to live an exotic life abroad may be pure fiction, but she offers hope for that which may yet be realised in the future.


Ai S. 2007. Netsuzō wa haitenakatta akai kutsu: teisetsu wa kō shite tsukurareta. Tokyo: Tokuma shoten.

Ai S. March 2013. Akai kutsu wo meguru gensetsu nit suite. Kokugoronshū 10, 25-41. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 2020].

Aki Y. 1995. Akai Kutsu densetsu: Yokohama monogatari.  Tokyo: Shūeisha.

Ayano, M. 2007. Akai kutsu haiteta onna no ko. Tokyo: Haato shuppan.

‘Azabu Jūban shōtengai.’ 2014. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 24 February 2020.]

Boym, S. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Creighton, M. 1997. Consuming Rural Japan: The Marketing of Tradition and Nostalgia in the Japanese Travel Industry. Ethnology 36 no. 3, pp. 239-54.

Fukuchi, J. 2014. Dōyō ‘akai kutsu no moderu ni tsuite. Kokugoronshū 11, 9-96. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2019.]

Galan, C. 2008. The New Image of Childhood in Japan During the Years 1945-49 and the Construction of a Japanese Collective Memory. In Saller and Schwentker, ed. The Power of Memory in Modern Japan. Kent, UK: Global Oriental Ltd, pp. 189-203.

Hokkaidō Shinbun. 17 November 1973. Maboroshii no ane: ‘akai kutsu’ no onna no ko.

Kamei, H. 2012. Akai kutsu wo meguru gensetsu. Kokugoronshū 9, 1-43. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 August 2019].

Kikuchi, H. 1979. Akai kutsu haiteta onna no ko. Gendai Hyōronsha, 1979.

Lucken M. 2008. Remodelling Public Space: the Fate of War Monuments, 1945-48. In Saller and Schwentker, ed. The Power of Memory in Modern Japan. Kent, UK: Global Oriental Ltd, pp. 135-153.

Nara, Tatsuo.  Noguchi Ujō kokoro no hensen “Kareru susuki” ya “Akai kutsu” ga toikakeru mono. Ayumi Shuppan, 1997.

Bunkachou homu peiji 2007. Oyako de utai tsugō nihon no uta hyakusen. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 13 August 2019].

Perry, S. 2014. Recasting Red Culture in Proletarian Japan: Childhood, Korea, and the Historical Avant-garde. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Shizuoka-shi sōmu-kyoku kōhō-ka. 2020. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 22 February 2020].

Tōkyō irasutoreetazu sosaetii. 2004. Akai kutsu. Tokyo: Sakuhinsha.

Yano, C. 2002. Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press.

Watashi no akai kutsu: akai kutsu haiteta onna no ko no zō kensetsu kinen. 1979. Ed. Matsunaga Haru. Yokohama: Dōyō akai kutsu wo ai suru shimin no kai.


1. This was later published by the Agency as ‘Oyako de utai tsugō nihon no uta hyakusen’ (Top 100 Japanese Songs for Parents and Children to Sing). PTA organisations across the country were polled. The list actually contains 101 songs (‘Oyako’ 2007).

2. The song has no connection to the well-known nineteenth-century fairy tale of the same name by Hans Christian Anderson.

About the Author

Kelly Hansen received her PhD in Japanese language and literature from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa in 2009. She is currently a professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Department of Literature, at Kumamoto University, Japan.

Email the author

Back to top