“The Professor” is back in town. Last weekend, Ryuichi Sakamoto took the stage at Tokyo Opera City for the debut concert of the Tohoku Youth Orchestra, a 105-strong ensemble of young musicians from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, which counts him as its musical director.
Though he isn’t inclined to make a fuss about these things, the occasion also had personal significance for the 64-year-old composer and musician, a longtime New York resident. It was the first concert Sakamoto had played since undergoing treatment for throat cancer in 2014, canceling all engagements in what must be one of the music industry’s busiest work schedules. As he later remarked, it was the first extensive time off he’d had for 40 years.
Does he worry a lot about Japan’s future?
“I do, I do. One of the unfortunate things that’s happened in the three or so years since Abe came to power is that Japanese people are going on about how brilliant Japan is: ‘This is great! This place is amazing!’ There are too many TV programs and campaigns like that, and I’m getting a little sick of it. It’s fine if people from outside the country praise you like that, but to say it yourself — things like ‘Cool Japan’ — I don’t think that’s ‘cool.’ ”
Being one of the country’s most internationally renowned cultural icons, Sakamoto may seem like an obvious ambassador for the government’s campaign to promote Japanese soft power overseas. So it’s surprising when he says that he hasn’t even been approached by the apparatchiks behind Cool Japan.
Maybe it’s because the campaign originates within the halls of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — the main cheerleader for Japan’s nuclear power industry.
“I hate them, and I think the feeling’s mutual,” he says.
The organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics can also strike Sakamoto’s name from their invitation list. Although he composed and conducted the music for the opening ceremony at the Barcelona Games in 1992, he says that he wouldn’t be interested in taking part when the event returns to Japan.
Asked why, he reels off a list of the problems that continue to afflict the Tohoku region: the tens of thousands of people still living in temporary housing, the nuclear disaster evacuees unable to return home, the ongoing problems with cleanup efforts at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
“It’s not ‘under control’ at all, is it?” he says, echoing the words used by Abe in his speech to the International Olympic Committee in 2013. “They should be making that their first priority.”
For Sakamoto, the way to end Japan’s current malaise is through encouraging fresh thinking — though he concedes that this is difficult in “a society where it’s hard to say things that others don’t agree with.”
“You won’t get original thinking in an environment like that. The ideas won’t come, and the talented people will just end up going overseas,” he says as we wrap things up.
“I’ve been saying this for a long time,” he concludes, “but if you take Sony, which is a company that really represents Japan, and compare it to Akira Kurosawa — just one person — Kurosawa is probably worth more worldwide. A lot of people don’t seem to get that.”
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