Japan from the inside out

Sakamoto Ryuichi: Stepping out of America?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 18, 2007

ERIC CLAPTON once remarked that one doesn’t have to be intelligent to be a musician. Even a casual acceptance of this assertion, however, is not enough to prepare one for the sheer stupidity of Sakamoto Ryuichi, an otherwise highly respected musician and composer who put Japanese popular music on the map.

ongaku zukan

It’s all the more puzzling when you consider that Sakamoto could rightly be considered a genius. He not only graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, perhaps the country’s finest school for the arts (and dashed difficult to enter) with a B.A. in music composition and an M.A. in electronic and ethnic music, he’s taught courses there too.

He was a founding member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, a band light years ahead of its time, and was the first Japanese to receive an Academy Award when he, David Byrne, and Cong Su received Oscars for their score for The Last Emperor.

Sakamoto has composed several more film scores, including that for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in which he also acted. He wrote the music for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, and was hired by Finnish mobile phone company Nokia to compose ring and alert tones for the Nokia 8800.

He also reportedly is influenced by graph theory and mathematical logic in his composition method.

So when he talks about anything other than music, why does it seem as if he would have serious trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time?

Sakamoto was recently interviewed by David McNeill for the Japan Times.

Here are some excerpts:

After 9/11, I and my partner talked about moving somewhere else (from New York). We were worried about a second terrorist attack, perhaps a nuclear bomb in a briefcase. More than that, though, we were really shocked that our friends in New York turned patriotic overnight. You know, they started putting out the flags and so on.

You know how they say a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged? Well, maybe a hawk is a dove who saw a few thousand fellow citizens obliterated by religious maniacs on the instruction of a fabulously wealthy megalomaniac playing at guerilla leader who thought the United States was responsible for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Heck, if he was shocked at the patriotism in New York then, he should have been there in December 1941.

Q: So presumably you don’t like a lot of what is going on in the world right now?
A: …I’m very concerned about the danger of a nuclear leak and the proliferation of plutonium, which terrorists could steal.

The Sakamoto School of Political Philosophy: Concern about behavior is optional depending on the actor. A terrorist attack in New York City that killed a few thousand is not a primary concern, particularly if the planes missed your apartment, but terrorists stealing plutonium—presumably for a terrorist attack—is a concern, even more so if they steal it from your own country, which is using the plutonium for peaceful ends.

Now we have North Korea’s nuclear test, so the taboo in Japan is going away and people are talking about (developing) nuclear weapons.

Check (B) in the list of optional concerns. North Korean’s real nuclear weapons for their really reckless leadership, who might actually use them? Silence. Conjecture that Japan might develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent for North Korean attack? Unacceptable!

The basic reason for this (nuclear) plant is the same as Japan’s unnecessary dams. It is hugely profitable for the general contractors. They know nuclear power is unnecessary and dangerous…why not choose something safer?

Sakamoto examines the options…He doesn’t like nuclear power, though it is clean and safe. He thinks hydroelectric power (as well as flood control) is unnecessary…A prominent member of Greenpeace Japan, he is likely opposed to fossil fuels…Wind power is not yet economically feasible on an industrial scale…That means:

Split wood, not atoms!

For a man whose entire career has been built on playing electronic instruments, recording them in ways that can’t be duplicated either acoustically or in real time on stage, and selling the music on media that reproduce the music electronically in the homes of people with discriminating taste worldwide, you’d think he might be more concerned about how to generate all that megawattage.

I’m also concerned about the way that music has been used, especially by the Nazis. I was involved in political movements in the 1960s here…We were radicals. I used to think then a lot about propaganda and music. But at the beginning of the 1970s, when the movements failed, I shut my mouth for 20 years because I was against using music for propaganda. I didn’t like the political folk singers of the time.

Translation: I’m concerned about propaganda in music unless it’s mine.

Sakamoto claims his domestic career has suffered (for his politics). “Obviously, Japan has some major corporations, and they are major clients of the mass media, so of course they hate me.

Sakamoto ryuichi

Those major corporations still manage to hire people to compose jingles for their TV commercials—likely for lower fees than he charges–and the products still sell. Does this mean that corporations have no option to choose the musicians they employ? Only he has the option to withhold financial support from people whose politics he dislikes?

Q: Do you worry about the state of things between Japan and China?
A: A little, but still the problems are much lighter than those in other countries…China and Japan is almost nothing. Neighbors fight each other all the time: Look at the British and the French. (laughs)

The British and the French haven’t fought each other since 1815, almost 200 years. They were allies during the last two big European wars. The Chinese and the Japanese, however…

My biggest worry is the environment. That’s much more serious than political conflict. China is building 18 new nuclear plants, and Japanese companies are helping them.

“China alone last year embarked on a programme of building 562 large coal-fired power stations by 2012 – that is, a new coal-fired power station every five days for seven years. Since coal-fired power stations emit roughly twice as much carbon dioxide per gigawatt of electricity as gas-fired ones, it is not surprising that it is generally accepted that within the next 20 years China will overtake the United States as the largest source of emissions.” (Here’s the link; scroll down, or better still, read it all.)

The generating capacity of these new coal-fired power plants China will put on line each year until 2012—without any help–is the equivalent of England’s annual power output. And China is exempt from the Kyoto Protocol.

The option Sakamoto selected for concern: The nuclear power plants that Japan is helping China build.

I’m worried about corporate earth. Water is not free any more. Our resources were free at one time, but now they are not.

The reason water is not free is that it has to be purified for eating and drinking. You just can’t dip your cup into the Hudson River for a drink while you’re splitting all that free wood in a New York City apartment to power the generators for recording ambient music.

But hey, the air’s still free.

I’ve been thinking for a long time how to implement my feelings and political thought into my music, and I haven’t succeeded.

♪ Musical propaganda is fine,
As long as the party line,
Is mine, all mine… ♪

2 Responses to “Sakamoto Ryuichi: Stepping out of America?”

  1. waynenet said

    Love your comments…heck there’s always room for a celebrity’s comments somewhere in print…love his music anyway…

  2. Robert said

    Sakamoto is just expressing some very left wing views ie dislike of mass media, dislike of blind patriotism, dislike of nuclear weapons, concern about the environment. I fail to see how this makes him stupid. By your logic, anyone who is clever must accept right wing views. That is crazy. You make some valid points but there is room for disagreement. Sakamoto is very much a critic of the corporate world, a view shared by many.

    So feel free to disagree with Sakamoto but don’t call him stupid because he doesn’t share your opinions.

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