Japanese composer and pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto (b. 1952, Tokyo) was one of the most important artists of our time. He died on Tuesday, March 28.
His successful career spanned nearly half a century. Once, along with co-founders Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, Ryuichi Sakamoto explored the boundaries of technopop with the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Later, with his classical compositions, he followed in the footsteps of Debussy and Ravel. As an actor, he was seen in the same films for which he wrote the acclaimed and Oscar-winning (The Last Emperor) music.
After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, Sakamoto became an iconic figure in the Japanese social movement against nuclear energy. From 2012, he organized the annual music event NO NUKES, which many famous artists, including Kraftwerk, participated in to protest against nuclear energy. After being diagnosed with throat cancer and returning to music, his intense experience of life crises in 2017 led to a new masterpiece: async. Recently, his album 12 was released, twelve intimate ‘meditations’ for synthesizer and piano, a sound diary he recorded during his last battle with cancer.
Ryuichi Sakamoto was the ‘associate artist’ for the Holland Festival in 2021.
Thirty-three years ago, in March 1990, Ryuichi Sakamoto emphasized in an interview I had with him for the Dutch music magazine OOR: “Let me make one thing clear, and that is, I am NOT Japanese.” On the release of 12, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s last album, here is a reissue of that interview.
The Map In The Mind Of Ryuichi Sakamoto
March 17, 1990
Once, he explored the boundaries of technopop with the Yellow Magic Orchestra. With his classical compositions, he later followed in the footsteps of Debussy and Ravel. Nowadays, he sends out musical newsletters with names like Neo Geo and Beauty around the world. Greetings from Tokyo.
“Let me make one thing clear, and that is, I am NOT Japanese.”
He is small, like a ‘real’ Japanese. He is polite, like a ‘real’ Japanese. Yet, Ryuichi Sakamoto is not Japanese, at least, he does not see himself as such. “I come from the island of Okinawa. Officially it belongs to Japan but since the Second World War, the island is seventy percent American bases. Before that, Okinawa had its own language and music, a culture that is not understood by most Japanese. And the people of Okinawa still speak their own language and still play their own music, which is why it’s a shame that Okinawa is called Japanese. So, it is not!”
“I have a map in my head, a cultural map,” he says, after having wriggled and lit a new (the how many?) filter cigarette from the pack in front of him on the table. According to Sakamoto, there is no such thing as pure culture. “Culture has always mixed with different places all over the world.” For instance, Japanese folk-pop sounds to him like Arabic music. “Listen very closely to the vocal intonation and vibration.”
Sakamoto is more than willing to reveal the reference that resides under his skull, to us. We just need to be prepared to encounter a world that is quite different from everything that has so far appeared to us as reality. “As I see it, Bali is near New York and next to it we find Tokyo or maybe even Hamburg.”
A first musical printout ended up on the LP Neo Geo a few years ago. On Neo Geo, Sakamoto mainly explored the cultural heritage of China and Indonesia. The sequel to that first travel guide is out now and is called Beauty. On Beauty, Sakamoto crosses half the world in less than an hour, through India, Pakistan, Iraq, and the Middle East, to finally end up in Africa. Among the guest musicians who accompany him on this cultural world trip, we find names like Youssou N’Dour, Arto Lindsay, Robert Wyatt, Brian Wilson, Shankar, Pino Palladino, Jill Jones, and Robbie Robertson, each of whom is regarded as outstanding in their own field. I mean: How on earth do you get them all together? No problem, at least not for Sakamoto. “The moment I was working on the basic tracks in the studio, I already heard their sound in my head. I knew exactly what and who I needed. Well, then you just ask those people.”
So that’s how you do it. At least, if you’re called Sakamoto. And even for him, this method is somewhat new. Somewhat introverted, almost shy even, he much preferred working with machines in the past, computers that simply did what he asked without objecting, instead of with flesh-and-blood musicians. The turning point for Sakamoto came during the making of Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor, for which the composer not only wrote part of the soundtrack but also played a role. “I’ll be the last to claim I’m a good actor. In fact, I dislike acting. The times I’ve agreed, and that’s been twice so far (also in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – CCE), it was because I greatly admired the director and considered it an honor to work with him. But the acting itself, I could do without. The positive aspect of working with film, however, is that it has changed me in my relationships with other people. I barely felt it was worth communicating with others in the past, even with musicians. But due to The Last Emperor and the extraordinary experience it was for me, I suddenly got tired of always sitting alone in the studio. For The Last Emperor, I had to go to China, where I got to know many students among others. The crew consisted of people who literally came from all over the world. In the beginning, it was very difficult for me, especially the difference in character between Bertolucci – he is a true Latino – and myself initially caused many problems, but later I enjoyed working with so many different kinds of people.”
Of course, it’s obvious to interpret the title of Sakamoto’s recent LP Beauty as an ode to beauty. And indeed, Ryuichi is very pleased with the beautiful things this earth has to offer. However, in this case, Beauty refers more to what was and, according to Sakamoto, will never return than to what is still here. “I am very disappointed in humanity and what it has done to this planet. Honestly, I don’t see how we can save this earth, how we can still build a future here. I love the people on this world. I love nature, the animals. Only… I feel like I have already lost them. Everything is destroyed, and I’m not only talking about the environment but also political and social relations. Cultures disappear as we watch. For this reason, I make the music I make because I want to remember them, this earth but also the people who live on it. They are the ones who inspire me, who fascinate me and who repeatedly amaze me.”
“I had already lost my national identity, because I want nothing to do with the history of Japan”
As much as Sakamoto values life and its associated traditions – at least, he wants to preserve them in some form – he is not interested in nationalities and everything related to them. “I think it’s excellent to lose my identity in that regard. You get a lot in return for that. I had already lost my identity, not my personal one but my national one, because I want nothing to do with the history of Japan, with what Japan has done in Korea and China and during the last world war. The mentality that the Japanese had at that time still exists, not among the kids but among the average Japanese citizen. I cannot tolerate that. However, the loss of my national identity is more than made up for by the many people I meet everywhere, who influence me from their own culture. As a result, I am undergoing continuous change, always on the way to something new.”
For Sakamoto, the ideal world is one where nationalities no longer exist. “I truly believe we can do without them. I’ve always had the hope of living in a world without borders one day. That sounds like an old hippie dream, I know, but why shouldn’t a person be allowed to dream?”