Photo/Illutration Postcards and letters the mother of Chiaki Hakamada has received from her pen pal in Miyagi Prefecture over their more than 60-year correspondence (Provided by Chiaki Hakamada)

When she was growing up in Wakayama Prefecture, Chiaki Hakamada would often find postcards and letters sent to her mother from an address in Miyagi Prefecture.

“My mother simply told me that she had someone she was exchanging messages with,” said Hakamada, now 49. 

Pen pals were popular some 60 years ago when her mother began corresponding with her long-distance friend.

Today, the bonds they formed and letters exchanged still continue to teach Hakamada about life and family, even in this modern day of emails and social networking sites.

For Hakamada, recent messages from her mother's pen pal were filled with suggestions that help her think about and value her family. 


According to Hakamada, who works part time in Nagoya, her mother, now 72, started swapping letters with her pen pal six decades ago.

Exchanging letters with strangers was popular then. When a friend of her mother sought pen pals through a magazine, more people than expected responded. So the friend asked the mother to “interact with some of them.”

Among the pen pals the mother became friends with at the time, the Miyagi woman still stays in touch with her. Though the mother did not exchange letters with her after entering high school and before she got married, they have been liaising for more than half a century.

The longtime pen friends informed one another of the births of their kids and grandchildren, but had not met in person. They had never even talked over the phone.

The turning point, however, came when the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami ravaged Miyagi Prefecture and surrounding areas in 2011.

Watching images of the devastated regions on TV, Hakamada’s mother felt compelled to call her pen pal. After learning she was safe, the mother sent dried food and other edible items that had long expiration dates. 

Since that day, they began exchanging not only letters but also phone calls and emails to keep themselves apprised of each other’s situation.

Eight years following their first contact by phone, the pen pals came face to face for the first time in October 2019 in Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, after they had been writing to each other for 60 years.

The meeting became a reality because Hakamada’s family, who lives with the mother, strongly recommended to the aged parent, who has a bad knee, to “definitely meet your friend while you can still walk under your own power.”

As the mother did not have the courage to go see her pen friend on her own, her family arranged everything so she could visit Miyagi, inspiring her to make up her mind.

The pen pal welcomed the mother, who “came all the way,” by staying at a room next to hers in the same inn, and enjoyed bathing in an open-air bath together.

Since they had seen each other's faces only through photographs, Hakamada’s mother was nervous about “what to talk about when seeing her” before the encounter. But the worries were unfounded: they quickly started speaking comfortably with one another as if they had met on many occasions.


Six months later, Hakamada received a message in an envelope from the Miyagi woman celebrating her oldest son entering high school. It was the third time, as Hakamada remembers, for a letter to reach her these days, followed by those sent at the times of her oldest daughter entering high school and college.

Surprised by the woman who thinks so considerately of her pen pal’s children and grandchildren, Hakamada read her message that expresses “concerns about the coronavirus” and hopes that Hakamada’s son “will enjoy his school days as he could enter the school he wanted to attend.”

The woman ends her letter with a sentence wishing for good health for Hakamada’s mother: “Please take care of her.” Reading the last words, Hakamada felt a little guilty.

“That made me become aware there is a person who thinks kindly of my mother so much,” she said. “With the sentence, I thought I still have many things to do for my mother as a daughter.”

Her mother refrains from contacting Hakamada frequently out of consideration for her busy life and only tells her, “I am fine so do not worry,” even when she called her mother. Hakamada said she should have done more for her mother despite those words.

Hakamada now thinks time will pass quickly though people often say, “it is still OK” and “doing it the next time will be enough." She also thinks that she should respond as soon as anything comes up, like having made it possible for her mother and pen pal to meet after exchanging letters for 60 years.


The Asahi Shimbun decided to interview Hakamada after her message about her mother’s pen pal was published in the May 24 readers’ column in the morning editions of the Tokyo and Nagoya head offices.

The full text of her contributed letter goes as follows:

My mother has a 60-year-long pen friend. When I was young, I found photos in the same envelopes as the letters and asked my mother “who she is,” and my mother told me that she is “my pen pal.” The long but infrequent exchanges continued since her high school days, even after their family names changed due to marriages. At the strong recommendation of my younger brother, my mother went all the way to see her pen friend last autumn. It was their first meeting despite their written communications lasting 60 years.

The pen friend thinks kindly of even me and my children. The other day, she sent a present for my oldest son who was entering high school. The attached letter ends with a sentence wishing the best for my mother’s health.

My heart slightly ached while reading that. I should not have just accepted my mother’s words on the other end of the phone, such as, “I am fine so do not worry,” as they were. Time passes quickly though people often say “it is still OK” and “doing it the next time will be enough." I want to live in the present while looking carefully after my surroundings and the people I love.