According to Wikipedia, "Ryuichi Sakamoto (坂本 龍一 Sakamoto Ryūichi, born January 17, 1952, Nakano, Tokyo, Japan) is an Academy Awards-winning, Grammy-winning, Golden Globe-winning Japanese musician, composer, producer and actor, based in New York and Tokyo."
I first met Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1997. Of course I knew of him having been a HUGE fan. Like many Japanese my age, Yellow Magic Orchestra defined an era of our youth where video games, anime and technology merged in the 80’s. YMO made us feel cool, global and different from our parents.
Timothy Leary and I talked a lot about YMO in the context of our discussions and plans to write a book about the New Breed of Japanese youth. [I recently wrote about how I met Tim.] Tim died in 1996, but apparently he had told Ryuichi that he should look me up.
I still have the email from January 26, 1997 where Ryuichi says that Tim had urged him to meet me at some point. Ryuichi invited me to visit his home in New York to chat sometime. I think that I ended up visiting Ryuichi at his place for the first time in April 1997.
I still remember the feeling that we all get when we first meet someone who we have been looking at in posters and album jackets in our room through our formative years. I was extremely excited and nervous and didn’t know what to expect.
Ryuichi turned out to be a down-to-earth, smart and super-curious guy who wanted to talk about computers, the Internet and the future. We talked about everything from computer generated music to PGP encryption. We hit it off and both agreed that Internet was changing everything.
Through the rest of the 90’s we worked on a bunch of things together. Among other things, he joined the advisory board of Neoteny and I joined his advisory board when he worked to invite the Dalai Lama to Japan. There was also a period where I was clubbing a lot and Ryuichi and I bounced around Tokyo together sometimes. We also took aikido lessons together and sometimes spontaneously sparred in awkward locations. As they say, “those were the days...”
In 1999 Ryuichi worked on the Media Artists Association which was a group to try to promote artists rights for new media artists and musicians which I tried to help with.
Right after the September 11 attacks, Ryuichi spoke out strongly in an appeal to not diminish human rights in response to the terrorist attacks. At the time, this was a very unpopular notion and I remember Ryuichi’s enormous bravery in speaking out about this as a foreigner living in New York City.
Later, Ryuichi launched a campaign against the plans to begin the war on Iraq. Again, he was way too early to get too much general support, but he persevered with this, at the time, unpopular position, putting his reputation and career on the line. In retrospect, I think we all should have listened to him more and made more noise.
Ryuichi has also been an outspoken environmentalist for as long as I’ve known him. I first heard about carbon offsets when Ryuichi started offsetting the carbon footprint of his concerts years ago. Recently he worked to try to stop a nuclear recycling plant in Rokkashomura and has launched a new projected called More Trees to help offset carbon and help support projects to plant more trees.
Ryuichi has always been early and strong in taking positions about political and social issues. I think a lot of this comes from his active participation in the student movements in Japan in the 60’s and 70’s.
These days, the student uprisings of the 60’s and 70’s are considered uncool. I remember in the 90’s fashion became rather fake and shallow and being serious or an activist was considered boring and stupid. People like Ryuichi and Ryu Murakami (a mutual friend who Ryuichi introduced me to) are some of the few people who are able be fashionable and activists at the same time.
Ryuichi’s adherence to his social principles while still retaining a super-high sense of taste and artistic quality have influenced me heavily. I have tried to model my life in many ways after his in terms of balancing creative and social endeavors. However, I still lack his his courage in calling out the unpopular issues early and loudly although I think I’m improving.
I think Ryuichi is a role model for us all in many ways and I’m really proud and happy to have him as my friend.