Lois Kajiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Commentary

Upon reading about Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba’s passing on Aug. 19, 2021, I felt a rush of emotions: disbelief, shock and a sense of deep loss. I first saw him in “The Bodyguard,” a TV drama co-starring Etsuko Shihomi, Yüki Meguro, and Jirö Chiba. He was so cool and charismatic; since then, Sonny Chiba has been my all-time favorite Japanese actor. He made such a huge impression on me that when I had to choose Japanese or Spanish lessons in middle school, I decided to learn Japanese because of my love for J-pop — and Sonny Chiba. Little did I know how impactful this decision would be to my future. I continued to study Japanese, which led to teaching English in Japan, making treasured friendships there, finding my passion for karaoke and working for several companies that have ties with Japan.

As a longtime fan, one of my most cherished memories is meeting him twice in Hawai‘i at his autograph sessions in the mid-’90s. For the first session, I remember buying a lei, excitedly waiting in line, and giving him the lei with a kiss! You know that saying about never meeting your idols because you’ll be disappointed? Sonny Chiba is definitely an exception. He was very friendly, answered my questions and kindly signed my items, including a Japan Action Club T-shirt. I was also happily surprised to find a photo of this memorable moment published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. I can’t imagine my life without my connections to Japan and interests in Japanese culture. For these reasons, I’ll always be grateful to Sonny Chiba.

This photo of Sonny Chiba was bought at a buromaido (celebrity photograph) shop in Asakusa. (Photo by Lois Kajiwara)

Curious to hear other reactions to his passing, I contacted three very cool people: Joanne Ninomiya, CEO of JN Productions, Inc.; Aaron Yamasato, filmmaker/creator of Kauai Comic Con; and Pali Ka‘aihue, creator and host of Doko Ga TV: JapanMania and Love Hokkaido, weekly programs on KFVE and KHNL. In response to my questions below, they shared their insights and memories of Sonny Chiba.

LK: Can you give us some background on how you selected Chiba’s programs?

Joanne: JN Productions was founded in July 1981, after I left the original KIKU-TV (VHF Channel 13). I was mainly on Oceanic Cablevision until the late 1980s, moved to KSHO (UHF Channel 26) and finally made the move in 1993 to KHAI (UHF Channel 20) which I renamed KIKU.

I remember purchasing “Shadow Warriors” and “The Yagyü Conspiracy” and that they were very popular in Hawai‘i. However, though I watched both series because they were so interesting and exciting, I was caught up with day-to-day operations at JN Productions and aside from the responsibility of acquiring the series, I didn’t pay much attention to Sonny Chiba the actor.

Political intrigue is the backdrop for “Shadow Warriors,” the thrilling series that showcases the many talents of Sonny Chiba. (Photo of “Shadow Warriors III” courtesy of Kansai TV)

Fortunately for me and Chiba fans in Hawai‘i, I met Tomio Maeda who was a shareholder of KZOO Radio in the ’60s through the ’80s (according to the present owner of KZOO Robyn Furuya). Mr. Maeda’s family was very well-connected in the Kansai area, and were also owners of Tökyö Tower and Radio Ösaka. The family had a major interest in Kansai TV, and were the Kansai connection to Fuji TV in Tökyö. Kansai TV co-produced “The Yagyü Conspiracy” movie in 1978 with Toei Company to celebrate their 20th anniversary. The subsequent television series, which ran for 39 weeks from 1978 to 1979, had an average weekly rating of 20%. Shinichi Chiba got his first starring TV role in a jidaigeki as Yagyü Jübei in this series. It boasted a star-studded cast including Soh Yamamura, Yüki Meguro (a Saint Louis graduate and younger brother of actor Hiroki Matsukata), a little-known Etsuko Shihomi at the time, and Etsuo Shima (the half-Filipino, adopted son of Kinnosuke Yorozuya), as well as popular guest stars like Ryö Tamura, Mariko Okada, Yataro Kitagami, Hiroshi Miyauchi and Kinnosuke Yorozuya. The Japan Action Club also became famous as Chiba’s acolytes, and Hiroyuki Sanada, who was mentored by Chiba, is now familiar to American movie audiences with roles in “The Last Samurai,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Mortal Kombat” and many more.

I’ve forgotten whether I asked or whether it was offered to me, but when I met Mr. Maeda over dinner at Pearl City Tavern, we got on the subject of jidaigeki, and that is how I came upon “Hattori Hanzö: Kage no Gundan” which followed “The Yagyü Conspiracy” in Japan. In Hawai‘i, “Hattori Hanzö” was broadcast first, followed by “Yagyü.”

The following is the chronological broadcast schedule in Hawai‘i as archived by Karen Corpuz of JN Productions:

1980: KIKU Ch. 13, “Hattori Hanzö: Kage no Gundan”

1982: Oceanic Cable 12, “Shadow Warriors II”

1982: Oceanic Cable 12, “Shadow Warriors III”

1985: KSHO UHF Ch. 26, “Shadow Warriors  III” (statewide repeat)

1986: KSHO UHF Ch. 26, “The Yagyü Conspiracy”

LK: Did Chiba have an influence on any of your projects? 

Talking story with Sonny Chiba, a dream come true! (Photo courtesy of Aaron Yamasato)

Aaron: Yes! Since I was a kid, I’ve been a huge fan of Sonny Chiba. Hearing the theme song from “Kage no Gundan” still brings back so many wonderful memories of watching KIKU with my obächan as a child. As an adult, I enjoyed discovering many of his cool films that I had missed when I was younger. It’s great that many of his harder-to-find films can be viewed on re-mastered Blu-ray releases. Sonny Chiba was a big inspiration for my TV show “Ninja EX,” being that I modeled the main ninja hero after his Hattori Hanzö character in “Shadow Warriors.” 

Before we started shooting, I found it interesting that many of the cast and crew questioned the look of the costume. They were all familiar with what an American ninja looked like, with a face covering similar to a Spiderman type of mask, but they weren’t familiar with Sonny Chiba’s classic Hattori Hanzō ninja hood. I actually wondered about changing it to become more of an American ninja-styled costume after someone commented that Ninja EX didn’t really look like a ninja, but more like a guy in a 1980s Jobber hat! Even though I saw the similarities and it got laughed at on set, I stuck to my guns. I kept that classic look because I wished to show my love for Sonny Chiba and his “Kage no Gundan!”

LK: I enjoyed reading your 2007 interview with Chiba. What are some fond memories of the interview and were you surprised by any of his answers?

Aaron: I was absolutely thrilled to be given the chance to do a television interview with one of my childhood heroes! To be honest, I was quite nervous because like I said earlier, this was an actor who I was a big fan of since I was a kid. For me, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sonny Chiba are martial arts movie legends. It was reassuring when I experienced how incredibly kind and gracious he was! The time I got to spend with him was absolutely wonderful. “The Street Fighter” is an all-time favorite movie of mine, so I was surprised to learn that he didn’t seem quite too fond of that film. He felt he was young during that time and there were many other characters that he had played much better since then. After the interview, he was happy to sign the Sonny Chiba DVD set I had brought along. He was very supportive and also quite intrigued when I showed him the cover of a Hawai‘i TV guide that featured my “Ninja EX” series. When I mentioned how much of an influence he was, he gave me a big smile, firmly shook my hand, and said, “Let’s work together in the future!” Such kind and super encouraging words to say. It’s always wonderful to know that your childhood heroes were also cool people in real life!

A treasured moment with Sonny Chiba, February 2019. (Photo courtesy of Pali Ka‘aihue)

LK: How did you become a fan of Chiba? 

Pali: When I was five years old, the original KIKU-TV was always on in my house. That’s the only channel we’d watch. I grew up on “Kikaida” and “Kikaida 01”, anime, “Kamen Rider V3”, and other Japanese heroes of that era. My mom would watch dramas each night, and my dad and I would watch “Abarenbö Shögun,” “Yagyü Ichizoku no Inbö,” and “Kage no Gundan.” Sonny Chiba’s heroes and fighting styles had a ferocity and flair in all of his action roles. While he could savagely defeat an entire clan of ninja attackers, his fight was always for the underdog, portraying kindness and care for the oppressed. My dad was also a huge fan of Sonny, and watching his movies and TV series are some of the best memories I have of hanging out with my dad.

LK: You were so lucky to meet him twice by chance! What stands out about those encounters?

Pali: The first time I met him was at the Ala Moana Hotel around 2008. The general manager at the time, Grant James, was a dear friend and he had mentioned there was a big action star from Japan staying in-house and was considering opening a Japanese samurai-themed restaurant in the hotel. He couldn’t remember the star’s name, and I jokingly said, “Big action star … well, it can’t be Sonny Chiba, right?” and Grant said, “Oh yeah! Sonny Chiba … that’s it.” After picking up my jaw from the floor, Grant could tell I wanted to meet him and called Sonny. 

Before I knew it, I was face-to-face with my hero! I was able to interview him for my program and he shared a bunch of stories. I mentioned that my dad and I are big fans, and Yagyü Jübei is our favorite character. Sonny revealed that while filming the series, he wore Jübei’s signature eye patch for long periods of time, which resulted in some blindness/visual imparity in his left eye. He also talked about filming “Kill Bill” and how Quentin Tarantino was a huge fan of his. He said Tarantino was a very exciting director to work with, yet after every take they’d shoot together, Quentin would say, “GREAT! Let’s do it again” or “PERFECT! Let’s do it one more time.” Sonny thought that was funny because Quentin would say it over and over again. 

He also showed me pictures of him helping to train Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman in sword fighting and other “Kill Bill” photos taken on set. The time flew by and I really wanted him to autograph my “Kage no Gundan” DVD set, so I rushed back home to get it and returned to the hotel. Thankfully, Sonny was still there, so he very graciously signed it. 

The second time I met him was at Ice Monster, the dessert shop in Waikïkï. He was friends with the owner, and I had just filmed a commercial there a week or so prior. That day, I was filming at the International Market Place and saw one of the owners, so I dropped by the shop and there was Sonny. We chatted for a bit and I was very happy to get a picture with him.

Sonny Chiba truly touched the lives of his fans in numerous ways. As Yagyü Jübei and Hattori Hanzö, his embodiment of strength and compassion continues to be a source of inspiration for me. Sadly for us, there will never be another Sonny Chiba. Although he is gone, it is comforting to know that he will live forever in our hearts.

Lois’ interest in Japan started with J-pop and martial arts shows. Her decision to study Japanese led to teaching English in Hamamatsu. She enjoys singing and doing creative projects.

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