Every Sunday an estimated five million Japanese readers of Yomiuri Shimbun, the world’s largest newspaper, turn to a letters column with the unenthralling but surprising title of “Helen Bottel Gives Advice to Japanese.” There they find peppery personal counsel from a California woman who has never visited Japan, but who never hesitates to shoot from the lip. To a Japanese husband troubled by his wife’s dissatisfaction with a life of household chores, Bottel was stern: “A woman has as much right as a man to seek a life outside the home and [deserves] a husband who encourages her with words and action. Pick up a broom, my chauvinist friend, and help her with the housework.” To a housewife who felt miserably trapped in her home, Bottel wrote: “Let your husband know you’re a person, not a household fixture, and you expect marriage to be a full partnership. Tradition is against you here, but so too was it in my country less than 50 years ago.”
Such advice sounds like trouble in a culture steeped in the ancient custom of arranged marriages, and Japanese readers have nicknamed their foreign adviser “Kimottama Obachan,” which translates roughly as “old daring aunt.” But that is a term of endearment Helen Bottel, 72, understands and appreciates. “Over here, ‘old’ sounds terrible,” she says. “Over there, if you’re old, it means you’re wise. And if you’re called aunt, it means you’re liked.” As for “daring,” the adjective is accurate. “My motto is ‘leap before you look,’ ” admits the deceptively soft-spoken columnist.
Bottel’s biggest leap was performed 28 years ago when she started writing an American advice column on a dare from her husband, Bob, then an agriculture inspector on the Oregon-California border. After only three weeks in print in the Grants Pass, Oreg. Daily Courier, she had the further gumption to send her clips to King Features Syndicate. King shot back a wire inviting Bottel to New York for a publicity blitz and instant syndication. “Helen Help Us” ran for 25 years and appeared in 200 papers with an estimated 10 million readers before Bottel decided to give it up in 1983. “I was tired of being the third person in a two-person market,” she explains, referring to Ann and Abby. The entire time the column ran, Bottel personally answered every letter that gave an address, about 3,500 a year, and she still gets mail three years after her column was discontinued. “If they’re desperate enough to write to someone they don’t know,” she says, “then the knowledge that at least one person really cares can give them the push to help themselves.”
Helen Bottel’s life isn’t the sort one would expect of a newspaper star whose opinion is cherished by millions. Her father left home in Beaumont, Calif, when she was 2; her mother suffered from a worsening mental condition and died when Helen was 15. After that she was raised by a foster mother to whom she grew so close that, she now says, “I was born when I was 15.” She worked 20 years on various small papers in California and Oregon before she began giving advice. She and Bob will soon celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They often spend vacations with their four grown children, and this year Bottel hopes finally to make it to Japan.
Her career as an intercontinental adviser began just as she was saying sayonara to her American readership. Tokiko Fukao, Yomiuri’s women’s page editor, had printed Bottel’s syndicated U.S. column and found that it appealed to the Japanese fascination with American culture. Recalls Fukao, “It described the ordinary American people’s way of life and thinking so vividly.” The column was an almost instant hit, and Fukao then arranged for Bottel to write a new one responding specifically to Japanese readers. She is sent a packet of translated letters once a month and spends 10 days writing her answers, sometimes getting up at 3 a.m. She has found some Japanese women eager to break loose from submissive roles in society. “You can tell in their letters they are seething, but in a very restrained sort of way.”
She says she had no idea quite how big a hit she was until she was visited in Sacramento not long ago by a noted Japanese television commentator, Kaoru Nakamaru. Remembers Bottel with a laugh, “She said she had three noteworthy Americans to interview on the West Coast: Charlton Heston, Pat Boone and Helen Bottel.”
Best of all, if she should really blunder due to cultural ignorance (two answers she gave, suggesting interracial adoption and discussing premarital cohabitation, drew more than 1,000 letters apiece, with mixed reactions), she has the perfect alibi. Says Bottel with an impish smile, “I can always say, well, this is the way we do it in America.”