Kikou Yamata was born in Lyons on March 15th 1897, from a French mother and a Nagasaki-born Japanese diplomat named Yamada Tadazumi. Yamada had worked in Japan with Emile Guimet, the famous French art collector, before being sent by Emperor Meiji as Consul of Japan in Lyons, then and now the French capital of silk weaving.


← Kikou - 1 year old 

with her family in Lyons →

In 1908, Kikou leaves France to settle with her family in Tokyo, where she is a student of the renowned Sacred-Heart School. She has a first try as an author by writing articles for the Yomiuri newspaper, and for a French magazine titled "Extrême-Orient".


After her father's death in 1923, she heads back to France with her mother, and becomes a student at the Sorbonne University. She is 26 years old when she is first introduced to the Paris literary circles. This kimono-wearing smiling young girl quickly becomes the Japanese for the high-society of Paris, all the more since she can talk perfectly fluent French : visitors of the literary salons of Mrs. Lucien Muhlfeld or of Duchess de la Rochefoucauld are keen of listening to Kikou's explanations and description of Japan, a strange and exotic country until then known in France only through orientalist novels such as those of Pierre Loti.


← Kikou by Foujita (1926)

Kikou gets to meet the big names of the Parisian literary world of the time, André Maurois, Anna de Noailles, Jacques Chardonne, Jean Cocteau, Léon-Paul Fargue and Paul Valéry, who writes a foreword for her first book, Sur des Lèvres Japonaises (on Japanese Lips), small collection of Japanese tales and of translated Noh plays.

Fame comes with Masako, a novel published in 1925. This story of 2 lovers confronted to social conventions is launched with a large advertisement campaign by the publisher Editions Stock : the picture of Kikou wearing a kimono (see left) is distributed to all the Paris bookshops, and Kikou herself performs a demonstration of ikebana at the Stock head store, next to Hotel du Louvre. The novel gets good revues, and becomes a best-seller, being reprinted 27 times over one year. 


In 1927, Kikou's next book, Le Shoji, is issued. It is a collection of short stories featuring young Japanese women, images of "a true Japan, with its melancholy and its virtues", well in the taste of the bourgeois salons of Paris in the late '20s.

In 1928, Kikou Yamata gives to the collection "Feux Croisés" (Plon publisher), a partial translation ofThe Tale of Genji. It is the first translation into French of this classical novel of the Japanese medieval litterature. On the same year, she meets the Swiss painter Conrad Meili (1895-1970), who had been asked a portrait of the now famous writer by a newspaper of Neuchatel. He marries Kikou in 1932.

In 1929, she gets from Editions Gallimard an order for writing a Life of General Nogi. She goes to Japan in order to get documentation for this book, and stays there one year, living with her mother in the family house of the Yamadas in Kamakura.

Kikou works at making Japan better known in France : she introduces to French poets, among which Pierre Gueguen, T. Dereme and Supervielle - the great master of haikai, Takahama Kyoshi.

While her carreer as a writer takes off, Kikou Yamata also devotes much time for the promotion of ikebana, the Japanese flower art, that she pionneered in France. From 1930, she exhibits her creations in Paris at the Salon d'Automne, where flower art is officially introduced in the Art Decoratif section in 1938. 
Kikou Yamata at the Salon d'Automne, 
by Paule Gobillard, niece of Berthe Morisot

But the mood is not about flowers any more : Japan's violent conquest of China shows to the face of the world a different image than the polite and refined country that Kikou had described : "you had not foreseen this !", Chardonne reproached her when the Mandchuria Incident happened. Signs of the increasing resentment against Japan can be found in Mille Coeurs en Chine, a novel written in 1937, in which Kikou tells the story of a Japanese woman married to a Chinese in warring Shanghai.

Kikou Yamata leaves Paris in 1939 to go to Japan, one week before the German invasion of Poland. She will be held up in Japan by the war almost 10 years. Antoinette Manz, wife of the Swiss ambassador in Tokyo (1997-2005), who spent her youth in Japan during the war, remembers well Kikou :


The Meilis were frequent guests of our compatriots who were installed in the American Embassy. The Swiss could still invite Japanese friends in these war-torn times. The little band of expatriates sought one another's company whenever possible and the Meilis were especially welcome because Kikou was a very able interpreter of the unified monolith Japan which had broken out over Asia. Two of Meili's watercolours have kept their memory alive for me.

← Kikou Yamata, by Conrad Meili (1933)

In Kamakura, where she lives, Kikou Yamata has problems with the Tokko, Japanese equivalent of the nazi Gestapo, because of her liberal ideas and her international friendships. She is arrested and spends 3 months in prison, in 1944.

After the war, Kikou Yamata comes back to Europe, and shares her life between a friend's house in Meudon, near Paris, and her Swiss farm on the banks of lake Léman. She takes up writing again in 1951, when Japan becomes fashionable again, after Kurosawa's "Rashomon" was awarded the Great Prize at the Venise Film Festival. Kikou is invited to numerous conferences and exhibitions about Japanese arts and culture.

The two books that she writes in 1953, Three Geishas and more importantly the Lady of Beauty, are successes in France and are translated into English, so that Kikou Yamata gets known in the US : the American writer Henry Miller sends her an enthusiastic letter.

Kikou Yamata also resumes ikebana demonstrations, at the Floralies de Gand 1955, where she is invited, then in 1957 in Paris, at the Japanese pavillion of the Salon des Arts Ménagers, then in the boutique of the magazine Elle on the Champs-Elysées avenue. She publishes in 1960 l'Art du Bouquet.

Kikou Yamata, by Conrad Meili (1953) →

She receives the Légion d'Honneur in 1957.   
Kikou Yamata and Duchess de la Rochefoucauld in 1961 
(archive INA)

Kikou Yamata died on March 12, 1975. She leaves us sentimentally engaging books, in which three themas dominate :

  1. the description of Japan and its history.

  2. the Japanese woman, a poweful character, far from the Madama Butterfly clichés, that Kikou Yamata represents from early to modern periods of the 20th century.

  3. the duality of her own franco-japanese self, neither fully western nor totally oriental, and yet forced by life to fulfil one side or the other.

In this beginning of 21th century, in a time when more and more children are born, like Kikou one hundred years ago, from love between Westerners and Japanese, this last thema has for sure an echo in our present lives.

 At 5, avenue du Maréchal Foch, in Lyons

The tomb of Kikou in 
Anières (Suisse)

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