Japanese cancer blogger dies at 34

TV personality Mao Kobayashi, shown here annouincing her engagement to kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizo in 2010, has passed away after battling cancer for two years. (Kyodo Photo)

TOKYO: Mao Kobayashi, a former newsreader who became widely recognised by chronicling her battle with breast cancer on her blog, died at her home on Thursday night, her family said. She was 34.

Her last words were “I love you”,┬áher husband, kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizo said tearfully at a news conference at a Tokyo theatre on Friday, shortly after finishing the day’s performance on stage. The 39-year-old added that he admired his wife for being considerate to others even when she was enduring difficult times.

Kobayashi was named in the 2016 edition of the BBC’s 100 Women list of inspirational and influential female figures after she broke her silence about her struggle with cancer by opening the blog last September.

While receiving cancer therapies, Kobayashi continued to write about her illness and how it changed her perspective on life. The blog attracted more than 2.5 million registered readers.

Ebizo said his wife was able to speak until Wednesday, but that her condition later took a turn for the worse, prompting him to rush back home from stage rehearsals upon receiving a text message from his mother-in-law.

On Thursday night, with him and their 4-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter at her bedside, Kobayashi “set out on a journey”, Ebizo said.

“She said ‘I love you’ the moment she took her last breath. She loved me until the end.”

Describing Kobayashi as someone who “changed” him, Ebizo said, “I wanted for us to always be together,” and did not wish to see his wife die before him. He had hoped that his wife could see through how he develops as an actor.

“I cannot be a replacement [to my wife] for my children, but I will do what I can to the best of my ability,” the kabuki actor said.

Kobayashi began appearing on TV when she was a university student, being featured in a popular show about the love lives of young women. She later became a weather reporter and news reader.

After meeting Ebizo for an interview, Kobayashi went on to marry the actor in March 2010. In doing so, she took her husband’s real surname, Horikoshi. They subsequently had a boy and girl, Kangen and Reika.

Kobayashi was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2014 after a medical checkup and her husband publicly announced her illness in June 2016 after media reports on her health.

Three months later, she started her blog, titled “Kokoro” (heart), and her positive, future-oriented attitude to life with cancer led the blog to gain a huge readership and prompted the BBC to name her in its list of female influencers.

On her first post on the blog, she wrote that thanks to her doctor’s advice “not to hide behind cancer”, she realised how her identity as a cancer patient had dominated her mind and life, and led her more and more toward the shadows.

“I have decided to say goodbye to the me who has been hiding behind cancer by using this blog as a tool, because I want to become a woman who lives her life vigorously and also be a strong mother for my children,” she said.

On the blog, she depicted her feelings when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and when she lost her hair due to the side effects of cancer therapy. While reporting on her daily life with her family she also acknowledged her worsening health, at one point saying her cancer had spread to other parts of her body.

She sometimes posted photos of herself with her haggard-looking but smiling face.

“I always pray to God ‘Please give me a chance to support actor Ichikawa Ebizo as his partner,'” Kobayashi said when she appeared on a TV programme featuring her husband aired in January.

Fans, who have been following the blog, expressed their sorrow.

A 34-year-old woman in Tokyo, who has an 8-month-old baby, said she was inspired by Kobayashi’s positive messages online and “felt a connection (to Kobayashi) as I am a mother of the same age and with a small child.”

“I cannot imagine what it is like to die leaving one’s children,” the woman said.

Eiko Yamaguchi, a 37-year-old Tokyo resident who is also a mother, said she was “shocked” to hear of the former newsreader’s death and had hoped she would get well.

Since Kobayashi came out with her story about fighting cancer, Yamaguchi said she herself became more conscious about her health, and believes that “many women, motivated by the blog, went for health checkups”.

The couple endured some hardships after their marriage. Ebizo sustained serious injuries in a bar brawl in November 2010, half a year after the marriage, and refrained from theatre performances for months due to the scandal, which along with his outspoken nature drew some public criticism.

Ebizo’s father Ichikawa Danjuro died in February 2013 at the age of 66.

When their son Kangen made his debut on the kabuki stage in November 2015 at age 2, Kobayashi supported the performance from behind the scenes while battling her disease. Ebizo later said she had been “prepared for anything”.

She died at her home in Tokyo, with her parents, her elder sister and freelance announcer Maya Kobayashi, and her two children and husband at her bedside, Ebizo said.

“Today, I have cried more than I have ever done in my life,” he wrote early Friday on his blog.