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Home » Archives » May 2005 » Schapelle Corby's Unknown Life in Japan

Schapelle Corby's Unknown Life in Japan

Sunday, May 29, 2005 Posted: 12:49 PM JST

On Monday May 16 Australia's New Idea Magazine published my article about the unknown life in Japan of Schapelle Corby. Schapelle was sentenced to twenty years in prison by an Indonesian court Friday.

Almost all the people I interviewed heard about Schapelle's sad fate for the first time as the news has not been covered by the Japanese media. Without exception, they were shocked and surprised.

In Australia the article attracted almost sensational attention. Few people knew Schapelle had been married and lived in Japan. Journalists who did know, had been unable to locate close friends, or her former husband. This was big. The news was covered by Channel 7 and most, if not all, other Australian news media. Some distorted my findings.

Hereby the original article. For reprints and permissions, please contact me.


In a living room in an eastern Japanese city, 32-year old Kimi Tanaka is shocked when he is told that Schapelle Corby is standing trial in Indonesia for drug smuggling. Schapelle was his wife until the two separated five years ago. He had no idea Schapelle had been arrested. The news is almost impossible to digest for the avid surfer. Kimi and Schapelle didn"t separate on friendly terms and the pain still sears his heart. "Even when I try, I can't recall the good times we had."

But the two clearly loved each other dearly when they first started dating on the Gold Coast in the mid nineties. Kimi was in Australia on a working holiday visa. He worked as a cashier at a supermarket where Schapelle did her shopping. She spoke to the surprised Kimi in Japanese and he asked her where she picked that up. She had spent some time in Japan just a few years earlier she told him. The two started to go out and soon a romance blossomed.

After Kimi's return to Japan there were frequent visits of Schapelle, Kimi repeatedly traveled to Australia. Schapelle's many visits seemed to have made Japanese immigration officials weary. By 1998 it was getting harder for Schapelle to get a visa to enter Japan. "Getting married would be better," said Kimi and on June 19 the two signed their names at the city office of Omaezaki, a small isolated town on the east coast of Japan.

The strong waves of the Pacific Ocean that crash onto the desolated beaches of this town make it a surfer's paradise. Until Japan's bad economy drowned the sponsors, this town was the location of large world championships for surfers and wind surfers. But for a lively young woman from Australia it must have been a lonely place. Far removed from bustling Tokyo there is frighteningly little to do. There are countless small tea farms, a thriving fishing industry and there is some ship building, but that is it.

"I think she was very lonely," says Ryusuke Hori (30). Hori was a surfing buddy of Kimi at the time. He met Schapelle "about twenty or thirty times". 'she spoke only a little Japanese. There is nothing here, right? Except for surfing there is nothing to do. There are also few foreigners."

Born and raised in the mountains of inland Japan Kimi had lost his heart to the sea at an early age and he was living his dream in Omaezaki. But money was tight. Kimi and Schapelle lead a frugal life. They lived in a tiny apartment near the windswept beach and the waves that Kimi loved so much.

Kimi found low paying jobs at a local hotel and a traditional Japanese inn. Schapelle also tried working there for a short while in January 1999. Her time at the inn was so short that the manager hardly remembers her. "The only thing I remember," says Yukashi Sato (36), daughter of the inn's owner, "is that she brought my father souvenirs after a trip to Australia. She brought a t-shirt, a beer mug and other things. It surprised me that she did all that even though she had worked here for such a short period."

She has a clear memory of Kimi however. "He was really serious and worked hard. My father is extremely demanding and often gets angry but Kimi bore the burden well."

A former co-worker does remember Schapelle. 'she was serious and kind," recalls Motoko Sato (33). Sato is now a successful professional wind surfer who last year became PWA Hawaii Pro Champion, a respected title in the wind surfing world. 'she always asked me when there was something she didn"t know. She also asked a lot about Japanese," says Sato.

"I admired that she came all the way from Australia just for her husband. She didn"t know anybody, she couldn"t speak the language. She told me she really respected him, that he was so kind." Then she frowns. "I can"t believe what happened to her in Indonesia." The news has hit Sato as if a truck has just run over her.

After leaving the inn, Kimi found work as a seasonal worker at a tea farm. He often brought bags of tea home and gave them to their downstairs neighbor, Yoshie Matsuo (57).

"It was really good tea," she remembers. Then she thinks back to the time Kimi and Schapelle lived above her. "I remember one time that Schapelle was worried about her neighbor. They had a small child that cried all the time. She told me she feared that the parents abused the child." Matsuo checked and found there was nothing wrong.

'she didn"t seem to have too many friends around here. She must have been lonely." Then Matsuo looks at a picture of Schapelle in her Indonesian cell. "I feel so sorry for her. I had no idea."

Schapelle may not have had many friends in Omaezaki, but she did have one real good friend who even lived in the same building. Joanne Ogura (32) hails from Worcester in the UK and came to Japan when she was 20. Her Japanese husband is a professional wind surfer. Japanese media don"t report on Schapelle and Ogura is shocked to hear what happened to her friend. "Last year Schapelle's e-mails stopped coming and we wondered what had happened to her."

Ogura has lots of memories of Schapelle. 'she went cycling a lot and did boogie boarding. She was pretty lonely. She had a lot of stress being in a different culture. But she tried her best. I remember that she bought a Japanese cooking book and went shopping with that to make Japanese food for her husband."

"I knew her just before I had my baby. She was so kind to me. She went home to see her family. She came back with books and clothes and beautiful presents for my daughter."

'she was very family orientated. She very much loves her family. She made this big photo collage of all the people she loved, her Australian family and friends, and her Japanese family and friends. That is a really loving thing to do. I was really impressed that she spent so much time cutting out all the photos and making the collage."

After a short silence Ogura continues. "I really really really really respect Schapelle. She's a beautiful person with a kind heart. And so gentle."

But Schapelle was also a very emotional person. And so was Kimi. They were increasingly getting into fights. One day Schapelle left to live by herself in Tokyo where she worked in bars as a "hostess", serving drinks to businessmen.

On a day in 2000 she returned to Omaezaki but it ended in a great shouting match. The two threw whatever they could get their hands on at each other and even broke a window. Soon after, Schapelle left for Australia. In 2003 the divorce was finalized.

The last that Kimi heard from Schapelle was a phone call last October. She told him that her father was very sick. But Kimi had remarried by now and was a father. He asked her not to call again. She never did.

Originally published, in edited form, by New Idea Magazine on May 16, 2005. To protect his family's privacy, Kimi Tanaka's name has been changed.

Keywords: special_report


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