Jane Birkin's lasting mark on Japan

Singer, actor, and global style icon Jane Birkin's death at 76 on July 16 was a particularly sad passing for many in Japan. She was most widely known for her personal and artistic relationship with late songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and the iconic Hermès Birkin handbag, but her work to support survivors of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami earned her a special place in the hearts of Japanese.

Birkin's 1971 trip charms Japan

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg visited Japan in 1971.
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg taking a taxi in Tokyo in May 1971

In May 1971, when Jane Birkin was pregnant with her daughter Charlotte, she and her partner Serge Gainsbourg went to Tokyo to promote Pierre Koralnik's film "Cannabis." The couple was very popular at the time with the worldwide success of their song "Je t'aime... moi non plus," which hit right as Japan was in the midst of a Western culture craze. Japanese fans came out in droves to enthusiastically welcome their tour of the country.

A beautiful series of photos by French photographer Bertrand Laforet shows Gainsbourg and Birkin strolling around Tokyo in May of that year. The trip cemented their status as music and fashion icons in Japan.

In an interview with NHK in 2021, Birkin described how she remembered that period: "The Japanese didn't expect me to get off the plane seven months pregnant with Charlotte, and they were very nice because in fact all the music they played was 'Je t'aime... moi non plus,' quite erotic, so it was fun to be as big as that."

Racing to Japan as it faced disaster

On March 11, 2011, Birkin saw the images on TV of Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami. She found it impossible to sit still. While many foreigners in Japan were fleeing the country amid concerns about the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, she recalled: "There I was, almost alone on the plane, arriving in Tokyo."

While in the country, she held a charity concert in collaboration with Japanese musicians and collected donations through street performances.

Jane Birkin during a street performance in Tokyo in April 2011

Murakami Kasumiko, an essayist and close friend of Birkin, vividly remembers Jane's impact: "I saw quite a few young people crying while watching her sing. Some probably didn't have a clue as to who she was, but they seemed to be touched by the fact that a celebrity came all the way from overseas to sing in Japan while the country was facing a huge challenge."

Witnessing disaster-hit regions firsthand

Jane Birkin returned to Japan in 2013 and visited Miyagi, one of the three hardest-hit prefectures.

Birkin returned to Japan again in 2013 and visited Miyagi, one of the three prefectures that suffered the brunt of the disaster's impact.

Her visit gave Chiba Shinichi, a cafe owner in Matsushima, Miyagi, the chance to host a special event: a Jane Birkin concert.

Jane Birkin held a concert in Matsushima in 2013.

Before the performance, Birkin had inspired Chiba by visiting another one of his cafes that had been severely damaged by the earthquake.

"Rather than focusing on the building's damage, it was more like... she was sad for us. She was showing us true sympathy. She was a very famous person, but I felt very close to her," Chiba said.

Jane Birkin with the Chiba family in 2013

At the time, Chiba felt immense pressure to rebuild, and was worried it would be impossible. But he was ultimately able to open a new cafe in the same location.

"Jane told us, 'Let's smile, let's push ahead,'" he recalled. "And here we are now, surviving and smiling. I want to thank Jane and tell her we're doing fine."

Continuing her late daughter's work

Birkin was also actively involved in a project to support women rebuilding their lives in one of the disaster-hit areas. Amaproject, launched in 2012, sells handmade bracelets and other items made by women in Minamisanriku, Miyagi.

Birkin first found out about the initiative through her eldest daughter, Kate Barry, a photographer who documented the project's activities and was actively involved. She died suddenly at the age of 46 in 2013.

Kate Barry documented the 2011 disaster-hit areas and showed survivors' realities to the world.

Grappling with grief and despair, Birkin took over Barry's work. When Amaproject's sales declined as the public moved on from the disaster, she stepped in to help.

Murakami Kasumiko, Birkin's friend and the project's founder, shared a memorable episode:

"When I went to Paris, I asked Jane where she was because I wanted to see if she would make a drawing for the project's T-shirt. Jane said she was in a hair salon, so I went over there and explained that things weren't going very well with the project. She immediately started drawing even though her hair was still wet!"

Murakami Kasumiko spoke to NHK on July 20 at her home in Kamakura, before heading to Jane Birkin’s funeral in Paris.
Jane Birkin shows the drawing she did for Amaproject.

Right up through the last years of her life, Birkin showed her genuine love for Japan. She never stopped thinking about the communities affected by the 2011 disaster, helping them in any way she could.

"I continue to think about the people who still face difficulties in their life because it's unimaginable. As long as I can help a little, even a little tiny bit, to change their fates, I will continue my work." Birkin said in an interview with NHK in 2021.

While Birkin's wish to visit the country again can no longer be fulfilled, her legacy will always be present in the minds of the survivors.

Jane Birkin spoke to NHK in March 2021 in Paris on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
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