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Ryuichi Sakamoto reminds Japanese what’s the score on nuclear blame

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

“Keeping silent after Fukushima is barbaric,” is how composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto recently made clear his proactive stance toward Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster.

With a stinging article in the June 15 edition of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, he has set out his opinions on the Japanese government’s energy policies in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 last year.

He wrote there: “I have, for a long time, felt troubled by the way things are decided in Japan, based on ‘the mood of the moment’ rather than on solid logic. There is no real discussion on the principles that underlie issues.

“Now Prime Minister Yasuhiko Noda has exacerbated my disquiet. Noda has painstakingly referred to his desire to defend people’s lifestyles. Yet, I wonder who exactly he has in mind when he talks about ‘the people.’ “

Sakamoto, 60, who alludes in this quote to the prime minister’s decision to resume operation of nuclear power plants — which have all been shut down since May 5 of this year — goes on to state that the Japanese people are being intimidated by the electric power companies’ claim that we need nuclear energy.

“The public,” he wrote, “is given no chance to verify whether this is true or not.”

Though he bases himself in New York, Sakamoto has returned a number of times to Japan since March 2011, traveling to areas on the coast of the northeastern Tohoku region of Honshu that were directly affected by the disaster.

This is not the first social issue that Sakamoto has deeply involved himself in. Among others, he has worked tirelessly to preserve forests and encourage tree-planting to offset carbon emissions. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, he started an Internet project called “Chain Music” which he has vowed to keep going until U.S. troops leave that country and the war has ended. Chain Music — like a chain letter — links musicians dedicated to “building a musical memorial to the desire for peace.”

Sakamoto has also associated himself with the campaigns Zero Landmine and stop-rokkasho — the first being self-evident in its focus; the latter referring to a nuclear-reprocessing plant under construction in the village of Rokkasho in the Tohoku prefecture of Aomori.

Among the keyboard player, singer and composer’s most successful and moving musical projects to date was one he took up on a trip to Greenland in September 2008 in a group of 40 artists active in varied creative genres.

“What I saw,” he said, “was a gigantic world of ice and water. The landscape, the wild nature — it blew my mind.”

The trip was undertaken to increase world consciousness of the climate crisis facing the planet. “The problem of global warming,” said Sakamoto, “is not nature’s problem. It is our problem as human beings.”

Greenland inspired him with its sounds: “The purest sound I have ever heard in my life is that of a stream of water flowing under the Greenland ice.”

Sakamoto was turned on to serious music from an early age. In 1963, when he was 11, he was already studying composition — a field in which he earned an M.A. at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. By 1978, he was prominent in the seminal electronic music band he co-founded, Yellow Magic Orchestra, which took Japanese and Western rock and pop music by storm for several years, and whose influence is widely credited in much of today’s popular music.

His tastes in music are broad and deep, but he has been particularly drawn to the music of Okinawa and Indonesia. The score for Nagisa Oshima’s film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” which was the first movie score he wrote, draws significantly on the sounds of gamelan, the traditional ensemble music of Indonesia. He adores the French impressionist music composer Claude-Achille Debussy (1862-1918), who was himself inspired by Asian music. “Music goes around the world,” Sakamoto has said, “and comes full circle.”

I have known Sakamoto for 30 years, ever since we worked together on the Oshima film, for which I was assistant to the director. It was his first major acting role, and he proved to be brilliant as the cruel Capt. Yonoi in the 1940s Japanese prisoner-of-war camp that is the stage of the story. Even then, Sakamoto was telling me of his commitment to social and political issues.

There has never been much of a music protest movement in Japan as there has been, for instance, in the United States. Modern folk music in the U.S. was profoundly inspired by issues relating to the oppression of the working classes and the brutalities of war. From Woody Guthrie to Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen, the message has been embedded in the music for all to hear.

In Japan, enka (traditional popular songs) did flirt with social and political issues before World War II. But since 1945, that genre has done little more than drip with tears and maudlin sop.

Things changed briefly in the 1960s with the release of “What the Dead Man Left” in 1965. That anti-Vietnam War song, with lyrics by poet Shuntaro Tanikawa and music by Toru Takemitsu, was taken up by the protest movement here and sung by many artists.

A decade later, in 1974, Japan’s most popular postwar singer, Hibari Misora, went to the city of Hiroshima — victim of a U.S. atom bomb on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945 — and at the first Hiroshima Peace Music Festival, sang “A Single Pencil” — her song with the haunting lines: “If I had a single pencil / I would write ‘The Morning of August 6′ / If I had a single pencil / I would write ‘Human Life.’ “

Her theme was that even a single pencil can stop a war.

The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and, three days later, on Nagasaki are relevant for Sakamoto today too.

Last October, I went to Oxford where, at Hertford College, he appeared with the esteemed actress Sayuri Yoshinaga in a concert of music and poetry linking the disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the calamity of Fukushima.

On that memorable occasion, Yoshinaga read poetry written by children who were victims of those nuclear catastrophes, while Sakamoto played the piano, including some of the score of “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”

“It is a total illusion,” he told me after the concert, “to think that nuclear energy can be peaceful. What happened at Fukushima is the same as what people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced — except that this time the Japanese people brought it on entirely by themselves.”

Next weekend, on July 7 and 8, Sakamoto is coming together with other musicians — notably YMO and Kraftwerk — for a concert billed “No Nukes” at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba City. Sakamoto and his fellow artists are pushing for the abandonment of nuclear power in Japan, “so that this disaster may never be repeated. … Humans and nukes cannot coexist, whether it be for weapons and / or electricity.”

The final words of his article in the Asahi ring with great clarity and truth, as an exhortation to people not only in Japan but all over the world.

“Raise your voice and do not stop raising it,” he urges there. “Do not give in. Do not lose heart. Be persistent. I believe that this is the only way we will ever change society in the end.”