Fort Worth

August 10, 2014

Pen pals for 60 years hold reunion in Fort Worth area

Betty Johnson of the United States and Kuniko Tsuhara of Japan forged an international friendship that started in 1953.

They were born a world apart, long before text messaging or video chat, before email or even cheap long-distance calls. And a visit that ended last week is one of only four they have ever had with each other.

But thanks to old-fashioned handwritten, hand-delivered letters, Betty Johnson of the United States and Kuniko Tsuhara of Japan forged an international friendship that has now lasted more than 60 years.

It began in 1953, when Johnson was a 14-year-old growing up in rural Oregon and Tsuhara, about two years older, was doing the same in a town a few miles outside Hiroshima. Tsuhara’s brother had posted an ad in the old student periodical My Weekly Reader asking for a pen pal. One of Johnson’s classmates had seen it and told his peers.

The ad indicated that Tsuhara’s brother had a sister. Johnson, now 75 and long removed from the Pacific Northwest by her husband, Jack Johnson, decided to write her a letter.

“I licked the stamp, stuck it on the envelope and mailed it,” she said last week at her house amid the gently rolling farmland between Mansfield and Alvarado, where she and Jack retired after selling the Alpine Shooting Range, which they had founded and operated for decades in southeast Fort Worth.

She wasn’t sure she would get a reply. And for months she didn’t. Then one day it came.

“It was very exciting,” she said. “It was very exciting getting a letter from Japan.”

She opened it carefully, pulled out the sheets of paper nearly tissue thin, and began to read. Tsuhara had also enclosed small photographs — black and white, of course — including one of a young Robert Wagner.

“They thought he was just so handsome,” Johnson said, drawing a giggle from Tsuhara, who lives in Iwakuni, where the Marine Corps has an air base.

Until a few days ago, Tsuhara hadn’t seen the letter since it left her hand in 1953. She was amazed that Johnson still had it.

On this visit, the second she has made to the U.S. to visit Johnson, Tsuhara brought along her granddaughter Mifumi Sakai, who turned 17 on Friday. Tsuhara loves Texas’ wide-open spaces; Sakai’s favorite American discovery so far is the gift shop inside Cracker Barrel.

“This is a dream come true for me,” Tsuhara said. At 77, she hadn’t expected to come to the U.S. again, but the trip was a birthday present to Sakai from her parents.

At first glance, Johnson, tanned from the summer sun and as self-confident as one would expect a former longtime women’s state shooting champion to be, and Tsuhara, delicately pale and soft-spoken and an expert in a Japanese style of flower arranging, might seem a mismatched pair. But the six decades of trust they have built between them shows when Tsuhara, sometimes unsure of her English, glances at Johnson for reassurance or gentle clarification.

Johnson has been to Japan twice to visit her friend. The first time, she recalled with a laugh, “was about learning to use chopsticks.”

“I had been there a week before I ever saw a fork,” she said. “But I managed to get all the food in my mouth.”

The country’s traditions and history inspired her.

“We brag about 200 years. They have 2,000,” she said.

Through the ups and downs of life over 60 years — Tsuhara married, had two girls and taught her craft to the wives of U.S. military men, which helped her practice her English when many of her peers lost their grasp of it; the Johnsons had two boys, a business, a second home in Wyoming and a plane — the women’s correspondence has been a constant, even if it has become more technologically driven.

“I don’t like change,” Johnson said.

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