japanese music legend ryuichi sakamoto on why the perfect album can't exist

A conversation with the Japanese musical legend as he appears at the Park Avenue Armory and readies his latest release, 'Async'.

by Georgia Graham
26 April 2017, 6:01pm

This article was originally published in Issue No. 3 of i-D Japan.

Since the 1970s, Ryuichi Sakamoto has been one of Japan's most well-known and innovative musical icons, constantly questioning and re-imagining what music can be to the delight of his global audience. Both in Japan and worldwide, Sakamoto has also been a powerful voice for activism, using his influence to increase awareness around ecological issues such as the dangers of nuclear power and deforestation. Since his recovery from cancer in 2015, Sakamoto has relaunched himself into his musical projects, including the release of a brand new solo album.

Having lived in the USA for decades, what are your feelings on the current political climate?
I feel that democracy is insulted. But there is hope to me because almost half of the American people resist almost every week. We have a similar situation in Japanese politics, and there is not much resistance or protest unfortunately. That's the difference between here and there.

You recently recovered from cancer and are now releasing a new album. Was music an important part of your rehabilitation process?
During the treatment I couldn't hear or think of any music. The same thing happened after 9/11. For almost a month I couldn't hear, play or write music because it was too tense. We really need our health and peace to enjoy music and the arts.

Do you think that music can help heal society?
We need music and the arts more than ever because the world is becoming such a violent place. We need strong beauty more than ever.

In your music there is often a wonderful sense of play, of innovation and experimentation. Your More Trees organization encourages its followers to "think pessimistically, act optimistically," and engage in "joyful forestation." How do you stay optimistic and keep your young, curious spirit?
It's definitely part of my nature. I always have lots of curiosity in any genres or categories. Deep in my mind I am always asking: "what is music?" and "why do we do music?" It's almost the same question of what human beings are. Anything can be related to the answer, that is why I am looking at everything.

Of course I can be pessimistic when I look at the data of global warming, or plastic bags killing sea animals, but still I believe there is always a good side inside us. I say my hope is like bacteria. Bacteria have lived 3.8 billion years, through unbelievably harsh times. 

What advice would you give to young people who are feeling anxious abut the world nowadays? How can they find hope and inspiration?
Get to know about nature. I believe nature is so robust and we can trust its robustness. I strongly recommend young people to go into nature, whether it's the sea, the river, or forests.

What is the responsibility of young people today?
Younger people should push their elders to look after the generations to come. Our son does that, not only with environmental causes but also social causes; racism, sexism, everything - and we learn from it. One Japanese philosopher, Shunsuke Tsurumi, said "youth is always right" -- I love that!

Whose voice should we listen to now?
We had the big earthquake and tsunami in 2011 in Japan, and that reminded me to listen to the voice of nature.

What made you so passionate about activism?
The reason was my children. I was imagining the day our children got to my age, how the world would become if we continue consuming at this pace. Then I got really terrified so I thought I should do something. I started with small things I could do. I changed my CD packaging, using biodegradable CD cases.

In an interview you said your goal was to make "the perfect album." Is this new album the one?
There will not be a perfect album. A perfect album means that I will be satisfied with the result, and that's what I don't like, to be satisfied. No satisfaction is the ultimate driving force for artists. Like the song: "I can't get no satisfaction"!

Ryuichi Sakamoto appears at the Park Avenue Armory tonight. His album 'Async' is released this week.


Text Georgia Graham
Photography Zachary Chick

Ryuichi Sakamoto
Japanese music
music interviews
georgia graham
i-d japan
zachary chick