Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Ryuichi Sakamoto

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.

Mizuka and Kaoru
Mizuka and Kaoru 2007

When I was born in Kyoto my father was still at Kyoto University studying under the late Kenichi Fukui. My grandparents on both sides had been against their marriage - my father a merchant class boy from Kansai shunned as lower-class by my mother's noble family from Northern Japan. My father's family wanted him to marry someone who was healthier and more likely to be a hard-working member of their family. Because of this, my parents were rather poor, lacking any support from their families. We lived in a dumpy home and they struggled to make ends meet.

Kenichi Fukui's wife, Tomoe, had a brother who knew people in the Geisha district, Gion. Through this connection my mother was able to get a job teaching English to geisha and maiko in Gion. They called her "Momoko-sensei". She taught at a geisha teahouse called Minoya.

Later, we moved to the US. Kaoru, the teenage daughter of the mistress and owner of Minoya wanted to visit the US. My parents agreed to let Kaoru come and stay with us for six months or so in exchange for baby-sitting. Kaoru was 18 and I was 3.

Joi and Kaoru Grand Canyon
Me and Kaoru at Yellow Stone National Park

We were so poor that my father once scolded Kaoru for eating too much food. ;-) Kaoru returned to Kyoto and eventually took over the family business of the geisha teahouse which she continues to run today.

I kept in touch with Kaoru over the years and I have made a habit of popping down to Kyoto whenever I can to see her and my other friends there. Kaoru is my guide and interface to Kyoto. She reminds me that when I visit a famous philosopher's house, that I should NOT, even when asked twice, actually accept the invitation for tea. She tells me how to deal with restaurant owners, geisha, maiko and monks... without her, I would never be able to navigate the exceedingly complex social system of Kyoto.

She still treats me like a 3 year old boy sometimes and embarrasses me to no end by continuing to call me by my baby name, "Jon-bon"... which as a result is my name among all of the geisha of Gion. The benefit, however, is that many of the geisha and maiko are like family. Even though I only lived in Kyoto as a baby, Kaoru and my geisha and maiko friends in Kyoto really help me continue to feel like Kyoto is my home. They provide me with an essential culture backbone to my Japanese nationality.

Inside Gaudi apartments

I'm at Frankfurt airport getting stuck in elevators during fire alarms and stuff...

I just posted photos from Barcelona on Flickr.

Keigo Oyamada aka Cornelius

According to Wikipedia, "Cornelius (born Keigo Oyamada (小山田圭吾) January 27, 1969 in Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, Japan) is a Japanese recording artist and producer. Oyamada's first claim to fame was as a member of the pop duo, Flipper's Guitar, one of the key groups of the Tokyo Shibuya-kei scene. Following the disbandment of Flipper's Guitar in 1991, Oyamada donned the "Cornelius" moniker and embarked on a successful solo career."

Keigo's mother is my mother's cousin. Keigo's grandmother moved to Tokyo in her youth while my grandmother stayed in Northern Japan to run our household. Keigo and his cousins became our local "family" when we moved to Tokyo since my first cousins were either in Northern Japan or in the US. When we used to get together as an extended family, our older cousins used to cheat us out of our allowance and everyone used to tease Keigo because he was always the funny little kid.

As we became teenagers, we hung out a lot and listened to music together. We listen to a lot of stuff like Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Clash. When both of our families were going through a somewhat difficult financial period and his mother was working for my mother, we both lived in a dumpy old love hotel in Shibuya that had been converted to a dumpy old apartment.

Keigo was in Jr. High School at the time. He had a little cult following in his school, some kid writing a school comic strip about Keigo and his escapades. (If I remember this correctly...) I remember his mom being called into school regularly to make Keigo apologies for random things... I don't remember the details. I remember him practicing the guitar all the time and talking about starting a band.

One day, I heard that his band was a huge hit - Flippers Guitar, his first band. As they say, after that it's history... Keigo's music has evolved and it always involves a humble, funny and experimental attitude. I see his awesome mother, our humble teenage environment and our playful family in his music. I remember hearing that NHK had invited him to be a judge on a music show. When the host asked Keigo what he thought, he pointed out that the host had a nose hair sticking out and Keigo wasn't invited back... I guess she didn't think it was very funny.

Now Keigo has a wife, house, a super-cute kid and has mellowed a bit with age. On the other hand, his music aged well and continues to inspire me to experiment and remain playful. We're hoping to collaborate more directly more and he's helping with Creative Commons these days.