Sunday Lifestyle

In life, Kunihiko Tsuji made children happy with Hello Kitty. In death, he wanted to help the kids of Yolanda victims

CHUVANESS - Cecile Van Straten - The Philippine Star

Tita Virgie Ramos and I share a deep love of anything cute and Japanese.

For me, she is a visionary, having touched my life as early as eight years old, when she opened the first Sanrio store I had ever been to. It was a small space at Shoppesville, Greenhills, around 1978. Thus began my love affair with anything Sanrio and Hello Kitty. My life was never the same again.

As I sat in a corner of her home last Thursday night over toast and hot chocolate, she told me about Nov. 19, 2013, when she was seated in the dressing room of our favorite hotel, the Tokyo Peninsula.

Her husband Ben (my former boss at Daily Globe) was in the shower when Tita Virgie’s phone rang. It was Caroline Tsang, chief operating officer of Sanrio Wave, who was also in Tokyo.

“Are you alone? Are you sitting down?” Caroline asked Tita Virgie.

The Ramoses were in Tokyo for a medical appointment and had planned to have dinner with their friend, Kunihiko Tsuji, son of Sanrio founder Shintaro Tsuji. It was Kunihiko who brought Sanrio characters like Hello Kitty to the rest of the world, including the Philippines.

“When I got the call, it was obviously something serious. And then Caroline said ‘Boss Tsuji-san is gone…’”

Tita Virgie broke down.

“I haven’t wept that way for anyone.”

“Kuni-chan” is Tita Virgie’s pet name for Kunihiko Tsuji, senior operating officer and executive vice president of Sanrio Co. Ltd., who passed away in November due to acute heart failure. Ironically he was a health buff who worked out, swam every day and watched his calories.

He was on a business trip with his wife Yuko in Los Angeles, California, when he died. He was 62.

He is survived by his wife Yuko, his parents, and his sons Tomokuni and Masakuni.

Tita Virgie recalls how she first met Kuni-chan, in 1978 when she traveled to Japan hoping to bring Sanrio to the Philippines.

The young Tita Virgie must’ve charmed the otherwise macho Japanese executives, because after the first meeting, she was invited to have dinner with the big boss, Shintaro Tsuji.

“I was supposed to be picked up at the Tokyo Hilton by 7, but that day, I was running late. (As you know, the Japanese are never late.) I was fetched by a young man driving a BMW with what looked like an officemate. I leaned forward, tapped him on the shoulder and jokingly said, ‘I am going to tell Mr. Tsuji that it was you who was late,’” Tita Virgie laughs.

After dinner at Roppongi, she was invited to have dessert at Mr. Tsuji’s home in Setagaya. That was when Shintaro introduced his son Kunihiko to her.

The “driver” she had planned to use as an excuse for being late turned out to be the Sanrio founder’s son!

That marked the beginning of a business partnership and deep friendship that spanned decades.

The Ramoses and the Tsujis became fast friends. Over the next 35 years, Tita Virgie made over 100 trips to Japan while Kuni-chan visited the Philippines about 25 times. And in between they would meet up in toy fairs all over the world, whether in Milan, the United States, or even Nuremberg. They even stayed at the same hotels.

The overseas sales of Sanrio now accounts for 90 percent of the company’s business. Mr. Tsuji made his dad a dollar billionaire.

I remember meeting Mr. Tsuji during the opening of Tita Virgie’s Sanrio Luxe at Greenbelt 5 in September 2009. Aside from shaking hands with the son of Sanrio, it was memorable to me because it was the night before Typhoon Ondoy.

“We didn’t know how bad Ondoy would be,” Tita Virgie recalled. “He was staying at the Peninsula Manila and was supposed to leave the next day. In the morning we thought it was just the usual rain. We took my E-150 to get him to NAIA through the flood, before finding out all flights were canceled. I ended up dropping him off at the Mandarin Oriental spa, then he was able to fly out the next day.”

It was Kuni-chan who introduced her to Hermes bags 30 years ago. In exchange, she gifted him Armani suits.

She shows me pictures of Kunihiko’s son Tomokuni as a little boy: visiting Manila, riding Mikee Cojuangco’s horse and even filming a cameo in Kris Aquino’s TV commercial.

Now 25 years old, Tomokuni stays at the Ramoses’ home when visiting Manila.

The business partnership between the Ramoses and the Tsujis was very fruitful, too. Tita Virgie was the first Sanrio agent in the world and the Gift Gate store at the Ali Mall was Sanrio’s first overseas store in the world. Tita Virgie remains the face of Sanrio in the Philippines.

During Kunihiko’s wake and memorial service at the very prestigious Aoyama Sougishu, Tita Virgie was the only Filipino among the 2,000 mourners.

Following Japanese funeral protocol, men had to be in black suits, white shirts and black ties, while women wore black “suity” dresses, black stockings and low-heeled black shoes. The only ornamentation you could see was a string of pearls for women.

The solemn mood was somehow uplifted by about “a million colorful flowers” and music personally chosen by Kunihiko’s widow — a soundtrack from Sanrio Harmony Land.

On the traditional Japanese wooden coffin, Hello Kitty creator Yuko Yamaguchi drew the Hello Kitty family along with Kunihiko’s favorite Sanrio character, aside from Hello Kitty, My Melody.

In their last conversation right after super Typhoon Yolanda, Kuni-chan called Tita Virgie to ask about donating to the victims’ children, in particular.

“He called Caroline and told her to collect royalties from the licensees and donate the money for the children. After the memorial service, Tomokuni visited Tita Virgie at the Imperial Hotel to thank her, say goodbye and assure her of his father’s wish which was to send help for the Yolanda children. Asked about plans, particularly in Tokyo, our favorite destination, Tita Virgie answers, “It’s too…” she pauses, shaking her head. “I don’t think I will go back to Tokyo in the autumn. Not for a while.”

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