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Yoko Ono: ‘Possibly the most famous Japanese person in the world’

Bungei Shunju magazine, celebrating its 100th anniversary this month, profiles 100 eminent Japanese. Among them is Yoko Ono, “possibly the most famous Japanese person in the world.”

If fame is name recognition, she could very well be that. Her relationship with one of the most famous men in the world — in history — thrust celebrity upon her, and she played her role with Zen-like serenity. She’s 88 now, not much in the public eye, but filmmaker Peter Jackson’s new documentary, “The Beatles: Get Back,” brings her mysterious, puzzling, mostly silent, oddly compelling presence back to life.

The year is 1969. The Beatles are in a studio, working on what turned out to be their last recordings together, and “Yoko” — the world was on a first-name basis with her, though not always friendly — is ubiquitous. New York Times critic Amanda Hess this month conveys the impression: “My attention kept drifting toward her corner of the frame. I was seeing intimate, long-lost footage of the world’s most famous band preparing for its final performance, and I couldn’t stop watching Yoko Ono sitting around, doing nothing.”

Through the 1970s she suffered the opprobrium of having “broken up the Beatles.” In December 1980, John Lennon was murdered before her eyes. She went into mourning, recovered and went back to doing what she’d been doing before Lennon came into her life, or she into his — not “nothing” by any means; she was a conceptual artist and singer. Lennon recognized her sometimes startling originality. His fans didn’t.

If, 40 years later, her fame remains to be celebrated by Bungei Shunju, Lennon was perhaps right all along, and the fans wrong.

Bungei Shunju’s thumbnail sketch was written by singer Tokiko Kato. She’s an interesting figure in her own right. Born in Japan-occupied Manchuria in 1943, she threw herself into political protest while a student at the University of Tokyo and married, in 1972, student leader Toshio Fujimoto, whose activism landed him in jail.

Young people today must look back on that vanished era with bemusement. Political scientist Tatsuo Fujii, in an interview published this month by the Asahi Shimbun, says a whole new view of things prevails nowadays, summed up by the buzzword “self-reliance.”

“I tell my students, ‘Poverty can’t be solved by self-reliance, the problem is the way society is structured.’ They’re surprised to hear it; they say, ‘Oh, I thought everything was the individual’s responsibility.’” That’s a drastic mood shift. Kato’s generation blamed society almost as a matter of course, and revolted accordingly. Today, individualism has advanced to the point that society hardly exists, even as a scapegoat for widespread ills.

That ills are widespread is clear at a glance through a list Spa magazine draws up this month of the year’s most frequently recurring words and phrases. They include expressions that thriving circumstances would not spawn. “Menstrual poverty” is one, referring to women unable to afford sanitary napkins. Another is “retiring at 45” — not because one wants to but because it appears the best deal available. Forty-five, given current longevity, is half a lifetime — and what of the remaining half? Anxiety trumps anticipation — as shown by a third catch phrase Spa notes: “Is there anything left for me to do but die?”

Kato describes her first meeting with Ono. It was the summer of 1981, barely half a year after Lennon’s murder. Kato was on her way to Harbin, her birthplace, for a concert. She was nervous. “Japan had done China terrible harm in the war,” she writes in Bungei Shunju. “If I hadn’t dedicated myself to doing everything I can for world peace, I wouldn’t have been able to go back.”

Ono and Lennon’s peace activism — “bed-ins” and the like — were much celebrated, and much mocked, through the 1970s. Kato wrote her a letter. Ono, responded. Straight from Harbin, Kato flew to New York. The two hit it off. Kato recalls Ono saying, “You and your husband tried to break down walls. John and I tried to open windows.”

Ono played her new friend a song she’d recorded lately, “Goodbye Sadness.” It’s strangely beautiful. “Goodbye sadness, I don’t need you anymore.” Kato was moved. She’d cover the song in Japanese, she said.

In 1995, Kato was involved in one of the more absurd episodes in recent Japanese history. She was flying from Tokyo to Hakodate for a concert when her plane was hijacked. Three months earlier the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo had staged a sarin poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Was this more of the same? The hijacker declared it was, saying he was on an Aum mission. He wasn’t, as it turned out — just a banker going through an aggravated form of midlife crisis. The plane stood on the tarmac for 15 hours — Kato in contact with police via cellphone the whole time — before police stormed the plane. The hijacker, seized, was found armed, as United Press International put it at the time, “only with a screwdriver and an attitude.”

It’s a strange world, getting stranger. We are learning to be prepared for anything and everything. Who, two Christmases ago, would have dreamed of the coronavirus plague that engulfs us now?

Lennon loved to tell the story of how he and Ono first met. It was 1966. She was exhibiting her work at an avant-garde gallery in London. Lennon happened by. The two were introduced.

“I asked,” Lennon recalled later, ‘What’s the event?’ She gives me a little card. It just says ‘breathe’ on it. … Then I saw this ladder … leading up to the ceiling where there was a spyglass hanging down. It’s what made me stay. I went up the ladder and I got the spyglass and there was tiny little writing there. You really have to stand on the top of the ladder — you feel like a fool, you could fall any minute — and you look through, and it just says ‘yes.’”

Evidently she thought that’s all she needed to say. Maybe she was right.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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