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Obituaries

Gin Kanie, 108; She and Twin Sister Became Elderly Celebrities in Japan

March 01, 2001|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Gin Kanie, the 108-year-old celebrity twin who was a poster child for graceful longevity in rapidly graying Japan, died Wednesday of natural causes. She outlived her sister, Kin Narita, who died early last year.

The image of the beloved twins--spry, laughing, wrinkled and always identically dressed in traditional kimonos--adorned items ranging from prepaid telephone cards and stamps to household cleaners throughout Japan.

Nearly everyone who saw the tiny, cheerful great-grandmothers, with their close-cropped, snow-white hair, hamming it up on talk shows and meeting celebrities had the same reaction: kawaeee, or "sooo cute." Their deaths made front-page headlines across Japan. On Wednesday, tapes of their television appearances highlighted many news programs.

Her local Nagoya newspaper splashed a headline across its front page that read, "Japan's Granny: Sayonara."

The twins, whose real names were indeed Gin and Kin, translated respectively as Silver and Gold, were unknowns until vaulting into the limelight on their 100th birthday in 1992. The mayor of Nagoya and the prefectural governor came to visit them at Kanie's home on the national holiday known as Respect for the Aged Day, trailed by television cameras. The attention landed the twins a spot in a popular commercial touting a household cleaner, each in her heavy Nagoya accent saying "Hyakusha," or "I'm 100."

The twins traveled more as centenarians than they had in their first 10 decades. First it was the bullet trains across Japan to make appearances. Then they traveled overseas for the first time at age 102, to a conference in Taiwan attended by 1,000 pairs of twins. In 1997, they visited South Korea.

Then there were the nonstop meetings with Japanese celebrities. The twins dined on chanko-nabe--the staple stew-like dish--with famed sumo wrestler Akebono. They chatted it up several times with the Oprah of Japan, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, on her talk show.

They were models of health: Narita was hospitalized for the first time in 1998 for 17 days because of a stomach ulcer. Kanie was hospitalized for the first time the same year for 10 days because of pneumonia.

But their shared birth date wasn't always an asset. In traditional Japan, twins were thought to be jinxed. "When we were little, we didn't go places together, because being a twin wasn't cool," Narita once said in a television interview.

Born Aug. 1, 1892, the twins saw Japan evolve from a destitute, isolationist nation into a modern economic power. During a TV interview in which Narita mentioned "the war," the host had to ask her to clarify which one.

Like many other peasants at the time, their parents were illiterate. The father asked a respected Shinto priest to name the little girls.

Though born second, Narita was considered to be the elder sister, recalled Mineyo Kanie, her niece, in a phone interview last year. It was believed at the time of their birth that an older twin needed to remain a little longer in the womb while sending the younger twin out first.

They were the first and second of seven children, and their tenant-farmer parents had to give most of the rice they grew to the landlord. The family had little to eat.

In those days, girls often didn't go to school. But their father believed in education, Narita later recalled. They took turns going to school on alternate days, taking care of the other children on their days off while their parents toiled in the fields.

Both sisters also married farmers. In an arranged marriage, Narita was wed at 19 without having previously set eyes on the groom. And the honeymoon? "I went back to work in the field on the next day" cultivating wheat and bean crops, she later said.

Narita bore 11 children, but five died young.

Kanie, who married two years after her sister, had five daughters, four of whom are still living.

Both husbands died decades before the twins.

Commenting last year on their personalities, Mineyo Kanie, now 77, said the twins were similar, though Narita had more of a sense of humor.

In a television special shortly after Narita's death on Jan. 23, 2000, the hostess mourned with son Yukio Narita and daughter-in-law Kikue. As they watched clips of the sisters appearing on past shows, Yukio Narita said, "Her death was very peaceful, but the whole family felt like we wanted to take care of her longer."

When Kanie saw her twin's body, all she could say was, "My sister, you've grown so cold, you've grown so cold." Later she kept repeating, "What to do, what to do?" She told reporters: "I can't think of anything. Only tears keep coming down."

In the weeks after the death, her daughter said last year, Kanie began to slip. "She appears a bit lonely, and she says so," said Mineyo Kanie. "Sometimes she misunderstands, as if Kin were still around, only sick. My heart aches for her."

The elderly Kanie never really recovered.

Like many Japanese families who care for their aging parents at home, Kanie was tended in her last weeks by her daughters. Until just a few weeks ago, she'd ask them to carry her outside on their backs.

Kanie also is survived by four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. The funeral is scheduled for Friday.

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