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.



I am glad you made this post. i thought of asking how you met Ryuichi yesterday while were were talking for the podcast, but we had already gone down so many Sakamoto specific tangents. :-)

Dammit. I'm not painting.

back to work.


Thanks for the profile. A few years back I bought A Day in New York, and just loved it. I've always wanted to know more about this (as I'm learning) remarkable person!

B-2 Unit (1980) changed my notion to the music, Ongaku Zukan (1984) was my anthem when I was struggling hard in my university days. Sakamoto's attitude towards prestiges or cathedrals of Japanese music industry have been always intriguing me and shows his persistence on going his own way, not something he was forced to do. He is also an early-time activist on Internet streaming and Internet/digital music rights issues.

In fact, I was doing a DJ training using his CDs last evening (in Tokyo/Osaka time), when I saw this entry.

I first stumbled upon Ryuichi Sakamoto's music a few years back at the New Balance store in Tokyo. Almost instantly I was drawn into the delicate complexities of his arrangements. Sakamoto's music is simply amazing and his work is never too far down my playlist. Thanks for the bio!

What a warm portrait of a great man, Joi! I fondly recall previous posts you made mentioning Ryuichi. The photo you included makes him look like a puppy dog in his elder years, endearing and perhaps going out to get the newspaper. I only wish I could be so dignified in the later stages of my life. (Nice butterflies on the wall too.)

Incidentally, the other day, I performed a piano rendition of Sakamoto's famed "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" crossbred with Vangelis' "Hymne". Two of my favoritest touching melodies together in love:


thank you for your intimate view of maestro sakamoto.
I'm following his music since about 1991, when i first listen neo geo in argentina, at my friend's house.
my dream: a concert in cremona, italy, at stradivary square. cheers and thanks.

When I first met my friend Steven in 1984, he was very into Sylvian and Sakamoto's collaborations. He turned me on to the band Japan, David Sylvian and of course, Sakamoto, who I have been crazy for, ever since.

I can recall almost every trip to a music store and finding one of his gems to add to my collection. and, he was always the first person I would look for when we hit the rare music shops, every time. Mostly, without luck, but my passion for his stuff never relented in my search.

I learned to play piano and had an interest in sound in general because of Ryuichi's diverse music. I have always been happy with the fact that he has gone into almost every style of music and came out with something brilliant, and it's inspiring!

But the inspiration goes well beyond just that. His music over the years, has changed my life, mentally, spiritually, and it helped me reconsider things I had thought long lost. Compassion comes to mind...

Thanks for the post, Joi. It was nice to see a lot of the points you made in there, it reaffirms a lot of things for me, and I enjoyed reflecting on it the last few days.

Interesting info about Ryuichi.

Mr Sakamoto's pieces on the Babel soundtracks are the best ever.