Pearl Of Osaka: The Tsuyako Yamashita Story

Photo courtesy "Asahi Shimbun"

"Continuity is strength." - Tsuyako Yamashita, "Sponichi"

Born March 19, 1928 in Osaka, Japan, Tsuyako Ikuta started skating at the age of six on an outdoor ice rink on the Nakanoshima sandbank in Osaka. Though largely self-taught, she received some basic instruction from a doctor named Kozo Nagai, who had spent some time studying skating while abroad in Europe. She claimed her first of two consecutive Japanese junior women's titles in 1938 at the age of nine. In her first bid for the Japanese senior title, she placed third. At the time, short skirts and colourful costumes were forbidden. She wore a modest white dress with no embellishments.

Tsuyako Ikuta (center) and a group of young skaters in Osaka in 1936. Photo courtesy "Asahi Shimbun".

Due to Tsuyako's youth and impressive talent, there were obvious comparisons between her and Etsuko Inada, who represented Japan at the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Etsuko was viewed as the present; Tsuyako the future. That bright future was put on hold when World War II broke out and the Japanese Championships and 1940 Winter Olympic Games were cancelled.

During World War II, Tsuyako and Etsuko Inada were sent on a tour through Japan and China to give a series of figure skating exhibitions for the Imperial Japanese Army at the request of Prime Minister Tōjō Hideki. In a November 2017 interview with the "Asahi Shimbun" affiliate "Nikkan Sports", she recalled, "I traveled around China for about two months by rail and truck. The performances [were] performed on frozen ponds and lakes. In a lake in Beijing, there were a lot of soldiers on the ice. Suddenly, a sound was heard and the ice of about one meter thickness broke. It was a very hard journey, but I was happy to be able to show the performance of figure skating. Jumps in that era were of one and a half revolutions. The treatment was good. There were lots of sweets, Yōkans, etc. that were not in Japan." It wasn't all sunshine, rainbows and Salchows though. In one harrowing incident, she and Etsuko Inada hid underneath a large tree, hugged each other and closed their eyes while gunshots pierced the air of a Beijing suburb.

Upon Tsuyako's return to Japan, she found that the War situation had gotten considerably worse. Air raid sirens blared every second day and blackout curtains became the norm. She recalled, "The practice ice at that time was a rink on the roof of Asahi Kaikan in Nakanoshima, Osaka. I [wanted] to practice. I made a black curtain so that no light could leak out."

Photo courtesy "Asahi Shimbun"

When the War ended, figure skating was the last thing in the mind of Osaka residents. Their city had been bombed to oblivion for nearly seven months straight in 1945 and more than ten thousand civilians had perished on one cold February day alone. With transportation cut off between the area of Osaka she lived and Nakanoshima, Tsuyako's 'life line' to the ice rink was severed. Determined to go skate, she climbed a steep mountain path to locate the Rokko pond - an old favourite skating spot prior to the War. She threw a stone on the surface of the ice to make sure it was frozen and spent a blissful hour carving out figures, jumping and spinning in solitude.

Clipping from Masami Koboyashi's review of the 1954 Japanese Championships. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

When the Japanese Championships resumed in 1946, she finished second twice to Yoshiko Tsukioka, perennial runner-up to Etsuko Inada prior to the War. Warmer weather necessitated the cancellation of the event the following year. She returned to the sport under her married name Yamashita and won the 1954 and 1955 Japanese women's titles. She was then a mother of two. Though the ISU's post-War ban of skaters from Axis countries had by that point been lifted, Japan didn't send a team to the World Championships the years she won the Japanese title. 

Photo courtesy "Sankei Shimbun"

After quietly retiring from competition at the age of twenty-six, Tsuyako began a decades-long career as a skating coach in Osaka. She worked tirelessly with Etsuko Inada to help establish the Japanese equivalent of the Professional Skaters Association. Among her many students over the years were Yuka Sato's parents Kumiko Okawa and Nobuo Sato, Midori Ito, Rika Kihira and her own daughter Kazumi, who won four Japanese titles and competed at the 1968 and 1972 Winter Olympic Games. She retired from coaching in 2015, after suffering a fall so serious on the steps of the rink that she had to learn to walk again after spending several days in the ICU. She sadly passed away of heart failure on February 12, 2021 at the age of ninety-two.

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