THE love story between a doctor’s daughter and a shy Japanese student who had travelled to Scotland to learn whisky-making skills, has led to long-lasting ties between two towns.
They may be more than 5,000 miles apart, but the coastal town of Yoichi in northern Japan has been twinned with Bishopbriggs in East Dunbartonshire since the 1970s, with ties between the two communities going back as far as post-war Scotland.
Masataka Taketsuru is credited with founding Japan’s whisky industry, but in 1919 he was just another student lodger, who had travelled to Scotland to study organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow.
The 25-year-old had also been sent halfway across the world by his drinks company employer to crack the secret of how to make whisky successfully – working as an apprentice in distilleries across the country.
It was while he was staying in Scotland that he met Rita Cowan, a doctor’s daughter from Kirkintilloch, whose family had taken in tenants to help pay the bills following her father’s death from a heart attack.
It is said Masataka, who was from Hiroshima, was teaching her younger brother jujitsu at the family home in Middlecroft when the couple first met.
The pair fell quickly in love and - against their families wishes - were married in 1920 at Calton registry office.
They moved together to Campbeltown, where Masataka continued to learn his trade at the Hazelburn distillery.
Back to Japan
Despite not speaking a word of Japanese, in November 1920, Rita returned with Masataka to Japan, where they would spend the rest of their lives.
The couple eventually set up their own distillery, Dai Nippon Kaju KK (later to become the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company) in Yoichi, on Japan’s North Island of Hokkaido.
It is said Masataka chose the scenic coastal location because of it’s similarities to Scotland.
The distillery prospered under import bans on Scottish whisky and to this day is Japan’s second largest whisky producer.
Rita stayed the course and supported her husband with his business ventures. She passed away in January 1961 after a long battle with liver disease and Masataka died in 1979.
He is buried in Yoichi together with his wife.
In Japan today, the couple are still held in such high regard that there is a museum celebrating their love story. There is also an official Rita ‘fanclub’ who make an annual pilgrimage to the couple’s distillery in Yoichi.
Nikka’s whisky has consistently been named as one of the best in the world, while Yoichi’s main road is named “Rita Road”.
Strathkelvin District Council became twinned with Yoichi Town Council in the 1970s when the late Provost Bobby Coyle and his wife visited the area and were fascinated to learn of its Scottish links.
In 2002, the Taketsuru’s adopted son Takeshi Taketsuru visited Scotland for the first time to retrace his father’s footsteps on the invitation of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society.
He also visited the University of Glasgow where he founded “The Taketsuru Prize”. gifted to the best students on the MSci course every year, the course that Masataka Taketsuru studied.