Play celebrates couple who launched Japan’s whisky romance

Rita and Masataka Taketsuru in Japan. Picture: EDLC Archives & Local Studies
Rita and Masataka Taketsuru in Japan. Picture: EDLC Archives & Local Studies
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She is known as “the Mother of Japanese whisky” after leaving her native Scotland for Japan when she fell in love with a talented young chemist.

Now the story of the romance between Rita Cowan and Masataka Taketsuru and how the company they created helped kick-start the Japanese whisky industry is being turned into a stage play – 100 years on from their first encounter.

A sneak preview of Water Of Life, by Alan Muir, was performed at a gala dinner staged in honour of the couple last week in Rita’s native Kirkintilloch.

Muir, who has had two previous plays staged as part of the A Play, A Pie And A Pint programme at Oran Mor in Glasgow, hopes a full production of Water Of Life will be up and running next year in time for the 100th anniversary of their wedding and emigration to Japan.

He wants to see the play staged around Scotland’s whisky distilleries and even taken to Japan, where the couple’s story is much better known than in her home country, to the extent that their story was once dramatised into a Japanese TV series.

The play will recall how the couple resisted opposition from their families to getting married and pursuing their dreams of making their own whisky in Japan.

The couple first met in 1919 when Rita’s younger sister Ella had met Taketsuru at the university, where she was studying medicine, and asked him to help teach her brother Campbell judo. He moved in as a lodger to help the family make ends meet following the death of Rita’s father. They would go on to form Nikka Whisky, one of Japan’s most successful whisky producers, creating their distillery on Hokkaido, an island selected because of its resemblance to the Highlands.

Part of Water Of Life was performed at Kirkintilloch Town Hall at a centenary event attended by relatives of Rita, representatives of the whisky and tourism industries and Japanese Consul General Nozomu Takaoka.

Muir’s previous plays were inspired by a controversial visit by boxing icon Muhammad Ali to Scotland and Muir’s experiences in the local newspaper industry.

Muir, from Cumbernauld in Lanarkshire, said he had first encountered the “bizarre and scarcely believable” story of Rita and Masataka as a journalist in Kirkintilloch.

His research has involved delving into the archives of East Dunbartonshire Council, which holds a number of artefacts and objects donated by Rita’s family, including some of their own writing.

Muir said: “The more I found out about them, the more amazed I was - their’s is an incredible story.

“Here was a young woman who – 100 years ago – decided to travel thousands of miles away from the only home she’d ever known to a place she had never seen, a culture she had never experienced and a language she did not know, at a time when women’s freedoms were still a matter of debate and not a right.

“The Taketsurus didn’t just follow a dream, they followed their hearts – just as whisky follows the water. When I learned their full story I knew I had to write about it. It has everything – love, sacrifice, struggle, genius, heartbreak and the water of life.”

Muir said he had been moved by the response to the sneak preview of Water of Life at last week’s gala dinner - which he hopes will lead to the staging of the full production in the near future.

He added: “Perhaps the greatest accolade came from members of Rita’s family, who were present on the night, and described

how accurate and affecting it was.

“Scotland has so many beautiful distilleries - bringing the Taketsurus’ tale to life in such a place would be a dream come true.

“But my ultimate dream would be to take the play to Japan and help to strengthen the links even further between our two countries.

“That’s the fantastic thing about culture - it knows no border and has no master. It goes where it must - like the water.”