The demonstrations against the restarting of the Oi nuclear power plant held recently on Friday nights outside Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s residence are very much directed at the occupant of that abode, but they are attracting attention around the world, too. One of their closest followers is a Japanese expatriate based some 12,000 km away: Ryuichi Sakamoto.
“There was a large demonstration tonight, and they were there till a few minutes ago,” Sakamoto mentioned to The Japan Times by telephone from New York last Friday. It was as though the man whose stellar career with the electro-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra took him to New York some 22 years ago was reporting from the picket line himself.
Yet, Sakamoto’s close observation of his home country’s still-nascent antinuclear-power movement stems partly from a fear that it might not achieve anything. “For so long in Japan it has been normal for people to not voice their opinions,” he said. “The Fukushima crisis changed that, making dissent more acceptable, but I’m worried that this mood could fizzle out at any moment.”
And so the 60-year-old Sakamoto decided to do something to help, instigating what has morphed into a two-day music festival to be held this weekend at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba, just outside of Tokyo. No Nukes 2012 will feature some 25 bands, including two very big draws: Sakamoto’s own band, YMO, and iconic German electro-unit Kraftwerk.
As is clear from the event’s title, Sakamoto believes that Japan should end its reliance on nuclear power generation. “The Fukushima crisis showed that it is not safe,” he said.
No Nukes 2012 features bands and singers who more-or-less share his view. “Of course, there is nuance to each person’s stance,” he added. “Some people think we should dump nuclear power generation immediately. Others think we should phase it out over 20 years.”
Either way, Sakamoto felt it important that such musicians have a chance to express their opinions in a musical context. “It’s all very well to say this or that on Twitter and Facebook, but ultimately if you are a musician it is going to carry more weight if you make your statements through your craft,” he said.
At the same time, Sakamoto has another, slightly more subtle objective. “In Japan there has always been a small number of musicians who have been outspoken on social issues, but they tend to be dismissed as radical. Hence it was important to get the kinds of ‘normal’ musicians who don’t usually get involved in such things,” he said. “That way, more and more musicians will gradually start to realize that it is all right to express their own opinions.”
Although he didn’t name names, bands on the No Nukes lineup such as hippy rockers Soul Flower Union, who performed at the East Timorese celebration of independence in 2002, would fall under the former category, while rock band Asian Kung-Fu Generation and big-name solo acts Masayoshi Yamazaki, Keigo Oyamada (aka Cornelius) and Chitose Hajime, none of whom are known for strident political activism, would fall into the latter.
Kraftwerk, which is the only non-Japanese band in the lineup, would of course be in a category of its own. Formed in 1970, the German unit has been described in the British newspaper The Guardian as being “one of the few bands in history who genuinely bear comparison to the Beatles” because of the extent of their influence over genres such as hip-hop, techno, house, trance and electroclash. The band is almost equally noteworthy for its opposition to nuclear power.
In 1992, Kraftwerk participated in a Greenpeace-backed festival that was designed to raise awareness about Sellafield, a British nuclear reprocessing site. Ever since then, a remixed version of their 1975 song “Radioactivity” — which consists of morse-code bleeps and tones mixed in with lyrics such as “Chain reaction and mutation, contaminated population / Stop radioactivity / Is in the air for you and me” — has been one of their most popular.
“Kraftwerk always puts ‘Chernobyl’ and ‘Hiroshima’ up on the screen on stage when it performs ‘Radioactivity,’ ” Sakamoto said. “So I suggested to them that when they perform it at No Nukes 2012 they should add ‘Fukushima’ to the list.”
Sakamoto explained that he and his fellow YMO band mates (Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi) originally met with Kraftwerk some 30 years ago and “because we were both doing techno, there was always a strong mutual respect.”
That acquaintance was reestablished in May this year when the famously introverted Kraftwerk did several special performances at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“I met (Kraftwerk member) Ralf (Hütter) and told him about No Nukes. He emailed me the next day to say they’d do it,” Sakamoto recalled.
Still, despite the unambiguous stance of the event’s headline act, Sakamoto is keen that No Nukes not come across as overly didactic.
“The most important thing is for the crowd to enjoy the music, have a dance and then take home with them a seed — something that will inspire them to think about Japanese society and its energy policy,” he said.
During Japan’s last great period of social disquiet — the student movements against the revision of the U.S.-Japan security treaty in 1970 — the young Sakamoto is known for having been particularly militant. In a now-famous episode, he even publicly denounced the celebrated 20th century composer Toru Takemitsu, who he saw as a symbol of the status quo.
“I believed strongly that it was the young who were the progressives in society, who were ahead of the curve,” Sakamoto said of those years.
Still, he concedes, both he and his generation fell quiet after around 1972. “I became busy with YMO, but also things changed around that time,” Sakamoto said. “For some reason it came to be seen as uncool to voice a political opinion.”
It wasn’t until the 1990s, he continued, that his civic instincts were reawakened. “Since the early 1990s I had been very worried about the state of the environment, and, by the end of that decade I realized I needed to do something about it,” he said.
In the face of widespread criticism — even from his fans — Sakamoto became a vocal proponent of environmental issues, lending his name to multiple conservation and recycling initiatives. “Nowadays, everyone knows the term ‘eco,’ but a decade ago that wasn’t the case,” he said.
And now the Fukushima crisis has prompted Sakamoto to action once again.
Earlier this week, he released a new song titled “Odakias” that mixes protester cries from the Oi power plant demonstrations into a haunting loop. Rapper Shing02, multi-instrumentalist Yoshihide Otomo and California beatmaker Tokimonsta have also added their skills to remixes of the track, which is now up on Sakamoto’s SoundCloud site.
Think of those efforts as just the first step. The second comes this weekend.
No Nukes 2012 takes place in the No. 4-5 exhibition halls at Makuhari Messe in Chiba on July 7-8 (12 p.m. start). Tickets cost ¥6,800 for a one-day pass, ¥13,000 for a two-day pass. For more information, visit nonukes2012.jp.