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Mainichi Shinbun Interview, May 24, 2000 (Evening Edition)

Ryuichi Sakamoto Talks About "Symbiosis" and "Relief"  
The Earths Resources and Population Are at a Critical Point

Ryuichi Sakamoto (48), the composer whose piano piece, "Energy Flow" (used in the commercial for Regain), has been soothing the minds of "everyone who is tired" since last year, is back in Japan from the U.S. for a while. It has been twenty years since the World Tour of the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). Lately, he has turned his attention to creating works and speaking out about the themes of "symbiosis" and "relief." Could it be that the man best known in Japan as the standard-bearer of "techno-pop," the professor who has projected an ultra-radical image, has actually become a healer? We visited his Aoyama studio in Tokyo. [Miyuki Nakajima]

Q:  Did you write  "Energy Flow" as a healing piece?

A:  I was asked to write something in the "healing music style" for a commercial. But I warned them, "It won't be what is known as healing style; is that okay?" And I wrote something reminiscent of music I had heard as a child (by Debussy and the others) that somehow had made me feel good.  To me it is music that heals, but it is quite different from what you will find in the so-called "healing style" section of a record store.

Q:  "So-called healing style?"

A:  The so-called "healing style" of music has the sounds of wind or water added to it, and is refreshing at first hearing. But when I listen to that kind of music I get irritable. It's because the musical quality is bad. The concept is to treat people en masse, such as in supermarkets and other places where the idea is that if you play a certain kind of music people will want to buy things more, or their mood will be calmed, that sort of thing. That kind of approach is fascism, isn't it?
    It's behavioral psychology, which originated in America. In poultry factories, for example, the largest eggs are laid when there is proper light and feed. They do it to maximize their profit by experimenting like that. And this is the same thing, isn't it, the basic concept? Playing music to cows, or feeding them antibiotics? Feeding mutton to cows,  which are supposed to be herbivorous, and which then get mad cow disease? Something is wrong; something is screwed up.

Q:  So you feel incompatible with the "healing" style?

A:  I have never written a piece of music thinking about healing or being healed. Thats' not the purpose of music. There are times when music happens, by chance, to heal. About the time I was in high school, there was a movement to get the U.S military to withdraw from a base (Tachikawa). They say that somehow the song "Yuyake Koyake" [a Japanese folk song] started to spread through the ranks of the demonstrators and it became a chorus. I think that sort of thing, that instance, was probably a healing.

Q:  Is the Japan of today a society that really wants to be healed?

A:  It's odd to use the word "healing" to describe getting excited or happy or joyful just from listening to music. I would imagine that there are many people that dont have that sort of thing happen very often.

Q:  No such luxury because of the recession?

A:  They say "recession" but it seems that the standard of living is higher now than it was before the bubble burst [in the 1980s]. But I'll tell you that the origins of the blockade mentality and feeling of insecurity are, even though these terms may be a little obsolete, the breakdown of community, ideology, and authority. Authority is something that restrains people. It was this that we resisted in my high school days, but there were two sides, and it played the role of a buffer, let's say, as a kind of medicine for insecurity and for spiritual problems. This has collapsed completely. America has violence but it hasn't collapsed to the same extent. That's because it has Christian justice and morality. It's a country with principles, principles that still work. Japan, because it has lacked these things, has crumbled at the first blow. But even so, 17 year olds [committing crimes] is a terrible thing.

Q:  It's been described as a lack of imagination regarding other peoples pain.

A:  It's not good because it relies on imagination. When the ancient Hebraic law says "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" it doesn't just mean revenge as in folklore. It means that the punishment will be the equivalent of what was done to the other person. I think it would be good if, from the time we are little, every time we hurt someone we would get the same hurt back.

Q:  Mr. Sakamoto, are you that sort of parent?

A:  Basically, yes.

Q:  Reading your diary on your homepage, I see that you do things like reading to your child, [books] such as [Jean Henri] Fabre.

A:  Yeah. Fabres' insect journals, for 3 years. Now we're reading a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King and discussing "non-violence."

Q:  That's "I have a dream," right? Over the last few years you have been speaking out more and more about the environment. Is this because you are thinking of the children's future?

A:  There are some species that hurl themselves off cliffs in order to reduce their populations that have increased too much. We have to stop our own  [human] population increase before our children's generation reaches those cliffs. By the time our children are the age I am, the Earth may be done for.
People might start to kill each other over water (due to the population explosion and the advance of the deserts). I would not want [the children] to live in such a world. It is an injustice to not only use up the next generation's resources but to also leave behind waste. The environmental problem is a conflict between  the generations as well, you see.

Q:  When did you begin feeling this sense of crisis?

A:  From around the end of 1996, when there was a huge famine in Africa and many people died. That was the main thing, I think. It was a crisis that could not be relieved. Sitting in New York, watching all those people dropping dead on television, with the organizations feeling a lot of sympathy but not being able to do anything about it.  [These are] problems of government, of the economy and naturally of the environment.  I say environmental  problems, because I think that the totality of human activity has a large influence on the environment.  Famine is connected to the advance of the deserts, which can be connected to, as expected, the breakdown of community and the breakdown of self-sufficiency. That is to say, to the destruction of  the environment. You had the community of the village, surrounded by Nature with which it had coexisted for tens of thousands of years. Western European society came onto this scene, cut down the trees and built plantations, saying, "If you have money, you can buy useful things." By planting just one crop for a long time, the soil becomes depleted, and because it is depleted, more trees are cut.
With the trees gone, flooding occurs and the soil washes away. It all quickly breaks down. Money gets made, for sure, but family relationships, religious systems, and culture all break down.

Q:  So the situation is fairly serious?

A:  I feel that in the last few years, the crisis, if expressed in terms of stair steps, has been elevated 3 steps. Individual problems, whether of pollution or overpopulation, have existed since before the 60's. But the balance is already very tight between the resources of Earth and it's human population, and I feel it is at the limit. Tell me, don't you think that the oxygen will be all used up?  But no one is making any announcements about it.
The Earth's atmosphere consists of an extremely delicate balance, you know.

Q:  If the population increases and the trees decrease - is that the context of [your] statement in support of "Jubilee 2000" (the movement to cancel the debts of the major debtor nations)?

A:  If their environment could be improved even a little bit, and their level of education raised, they would be able to earn money through computer programming or folk crafts instead of cutting down trees. If this were done, the destruction of the environment would be somewhat abated. This is not being done because the business enterprises of the advanced nations are securing themselves cheap labor instead of paying decent wages,  and are taking what they want. It is a problem of global capitalism, called "globalization." It is an injustice that has been created. And if this isn't brought to an end, there will be mass suicide on a global scale. Reset (the vicious cycle) to zero. It's not such a large sum of money. It's each Japanese having one beer less per year, that's all. (see Editor's Note)

Q:  In Tokyo there are girls who get their faces tanned in tanning salons, using fossil fuel.

    Theyre called "yamanba"[mountain women]  aren't they? I wonder how many children in the poorest countries have died, how many forests have been cut down so that one of these kids can live? I'd like [these girls] to at least understand when they do it.
How much carbon dioxide is emitted when [the trees] are simply standing like that? [The answer] cannot be left to the imagination, or to a sense of conscience. It must be precisely measured, and then trees should be planted for that amount. If not, then money should be paid. Its the same for [problems like]gunning car motors [at red lights]. Hasn't Tokyo Governor (Shintaro) Ishihara [suggested] banning the use of personal cars once a week or turning off the electricity for a certain number of hours every month, asking us to go without to that extent? It is essential to have strong leadership on environmental issues. I wonder if there are two approaches to the solution. One would be scientific technology, the other the human heart.
I will use an over-used phrase and say a Sakamoto solution would be a symbiotic lifestyle and vision. This is something His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is saying and we musicians also think it must be something along those lines. It has broken down to such an extent, and I think the majority of Japanese still have compassion toward living things, an Asian view of nature.
I believe Buddhist views of morality, family, and the universe can perhaps be promoted to the whole world.
I believe we have a responsibility. You see, humans are just one species, nothing more than that. It is absolutely not the fault of the plants, the insects, or the animals. There are millions of species on the Earth and only one of them has brought this about. Species that have accomplished several hundred million years of evolution are going to die out. There is no worse crime than that, is there?

Q:  What about global capitalism?

A:  I believe an anti-capitalist movement will emerge, but in a different form than that of the 60's and it won't be rooted in ideology. Kojin Karatani (the literary critic) has begun a consumer's cooperative union movement. To volunteer with just a backpack after the great earthquake in Kobe- I like that kind of fortitude! I am also interested in trying out community currencies (money that is tied directly to living and welfare and which doesn't earn interest), such as the Ithaca Hours in New York State. [We can]tell them, "Go ahead and have your capitalism." It would be nice, wouldn't it, to have a global network separate from their "globalization?"
Q:  Because interest makes money self-increasing?

A:  Right. That is the number one problem. (see Editor's Note).

Suppose the Japanese government were to cancel the debt for which Japan has an ODA credit against the 40 major debtor nations, as defined by the IMF and the World Bank. This amounts to less than 400 billion yen [approx. $3.8 billion] if you omit 4 of those countries. [Those four are] Vietnam, whose debt cancellation the Japanese government will not accept; Kenya and Ghana, who are not seeking cancellation of debt because they are trying to get new financing; and the military dictatorship of Myanmar.  If this debt were transferred to every Japanese person, it would come to only about 350 yen [approx. $3.30] per person per year over ten years. Jubilee 2000 insists it is essential to cancel more of these debts.

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