Experimental genius Ryuichi Sakamoto draws us into his musical orbit

There have been some major concerts in London this week.

Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters played two nights at the London Stadium and Taylor Swift brought her Reputation tour to Wembley.

But the hottest tickets in town were for two shows by a 66-year-old Japanese pianist who has devoted the past twenty years of his career to challenging, experimental works.

Sell out success

I was fortunate enough to attend both the sell-out gigs by Ryuichi Sakamoto and my admiration for him has increased thanks to his remarkably bold performances.

Sakamoto is a legendary figure in Japan, thanks to his pioneering work with the techno band Yellow Magic Orchestra in the 1970s and 1980s. He went on to write beautiful, stirring soundtracks to a number of successful films, including the Last Emperor.

He still makes soundtracks, although they are usually quite dissonant, such as his 2015 score for the French horror TV series, the Revenant.

En vogue, in mode

Sakamoto performed in London as part of a festival he curated called Mode, which presented a range of emerging and established experimental artists from Japan to perform with like-minded musicians from Europe, South America and the US. The highlight was a big show at the Barbican which featured a collaboration between Sakamoto and Alva Noto, a musician from Germany originally known as Carsten Nicolai. Sakamoto played a grand piano while his friend provided various electronic sound effects and created beats from synthesizers and drum machines.

For the first part of the concert, Sakamoto rarely touched the piano’s keyboard. Instead, he stood beside the instrument, dropping coins onto its strings or plucking them with a pair of chopsticks. At one point, he crumpled up a paper bag up for a few minutes while the audience sat mesmerised by the sound amplified through a huge speaker system, accompanied by some thrilling computer-generated visuals.

Towards the end of the show, Sakamoto did play a few chords on the piano and steered us towards melody. But there was no performance of any of the tunes he made famous with YMO or through his films.

Is it music?

The second Sakamoto show was even more experimental. It was held at an abandoned factory in East London and the opening acts were two British bands with a taste for noisy abstraction. Sakamoto collaborated on stage with David Toop, a person who says he “doesn’t like music” any more but prefers the “silence and the space between notes.”

Mr Toop also plays the paper bag and at one point the pair were loudly scrunching together. Toop also uses all kinds of other tools and instruments which produce fascinating, impressionistic sounds. To accompany him, Sakamoto spent most of the time toying with the insides of his piano and almost never touched its keys – although this time he also used a small toy piano and a red electric guitar, with which he produced some astonishing noises.

A new generation listens

It was striking to watch the audience for these shows – particularly the tiny gig in the warehouse. Many of them were young and can’t have been aware of Sakamoto’s music or reputation until fairly recently. There were a number of Japanese fans but also people from China, Taiwan and South Korea. I made friends with a visitor from Seattle who had come to London just for the festival. It was a hip, international crowd and I think everyone felt pleased to be part of something special.

What really struck me, particularly about the Barbican show, was that Ryuichi Sakamoto’s approach to music has coincided with a more mainstream appreciation of art which draws on modern classical, techno and soundtracks. This has helped fuel a rise in interest in composers such as Jon Hopkins, Nils Frahm and Max Richter.

Sakamoto’s Mode festival continues with a few more interesting events in London running until mid-July but he is not scheduled to play live again. However, if you’d like to share your enthusiasm for Japanese music, do message me or post your comments below.


Japan’s tidy fans impress at World Cup

Japan has the best football fans at the World Cup, according to a report in the British tabloid newspaper, the Sun.

It says that the Japanese football supporters stayed behind to clean up the stadium in Russia following their team’s win against Colombia.

Apparently, the well-organised supporters took bin bags to the game with them, just as Japanese fans did when their team played in the 2014 World Cup.

The Sun, which is a paper obsessed with football, reports their behaviour with admiration and surprise.
Another website, News.com.au claims “this incredible gesture from Japanese fans has embarrassed every other supporter base at the Russia 2018 World Cup.”

Tidy team-work

I am not particularly surprised by this group clean-up. Nor do I think for a moment it was designed to embarrass or shame the fans of any other nation. It’s simply part of the Japanese mindset.

School children in Japan learn to clean the classrooms and playgrounds from a young age. Adults often judge others on the basis of their cleanliness. People say that a person who follows complicated rules on recycling is a “good neighbour”.

I have observed that the Japanese are particularly strong in two related areas – teamwork and problem solving. Group cleaning, whether at a football match, or at a school or an apartment block, is a reflection of those qualities. The Japanese also like to leave a good impression abroad and this is partly motivated by their desire to create a good basis for trade. In business, their primary goal is to gain influence and wealth through trade – and thus bring security and prosperity to their homeland.

Good example

Well-managed businesses play an important role in formulating ideas and guiding the behaviour of staff and wider society. Big companies have grand ambitions. For example, Itochu, one of Japan’s largest trading houses, has a mission statement which commits it to the Global Good and pledges to maintain “the Itochu values – Vision, Integrity, Diversity, Passion and Challenge – which have not changed since we were founded over 150 years ago.”

The personality traits of the Japanese are distinctive and intriguing. They leave a strong impression everywhere they go – just as they have in Russia. I am pleased that the Japanese national team won a victory in their opening game. But I am also pleased that their supporters showed in a simple way their nation’s strong sense of group responsibility – so much so that even the tabloid newspapers sing their praises.

Cleaning up the litter in a football stadium won’t serve the world’s problems. But it does show the Japanese are energetic, well prepared and ready to get their hands dirty.

Why does PM Abe remain so patient with President Trump?

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears closer to Donald Trump than any other foreign leader. He could even be regarded as having an “America First” policy, with the goal of convincing Mr Trump to act in the best interests of America’s ally Japan.

Yet it is a far from easy relationship. For the past week, Mr Abe has been a constant voice in Donald Trump’s ear. First, he went to Washington for talks about trade and North Korea at the White House. Then, Mr Abe attended a difficult G7 meeting in Canada, at which Mr Trump clashed with other members of the group.

Patience under pressure

The G7 leaders tried to show Mr Trump the value of collaboration on trade, apparently to no avail. A photograph of the meeting shows Mr Abe looking frustrated at a confrontation between President Trump and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Almost as soon as he returned from Canada, Mr Abe was back on the telephone to Mr Trump ahead of the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea. Mr Abe said that he hopes the summit will be a major step toward peace and stability in Asia and reminded reporters that Japan, the United States and South Korea share a similar foreign policy in response to the threat from North Korea.

The China factor

Journalists from Reuters helped to put the Abe-Trump relationship into context. “In dozens of conversations, Mr Abe has counselled President Trump to avoid making concessions to North Korea that could upset East Asia’s balance of power – including a military retreat from South Korea that would leave Tokyo alone on the front lines against China’s growing power.”

Mr Abe finds common ground with Mr Trump on the challenges arising from China and North Korea. Nevertheless, they fundamentally disagree about their basic approach to trade. Mr Abe favours multilateral, international agreements but these are anathemas to the protectionist tendencies of Mr Trump.

Intense debate

Mr Abe said after the G7 meeting in Canada that there had been moments of “intense debate” during the discussion on trade and suggested that “anxiety and dissatisfaction with globalisation” sometimes leads to protectionism. “But we must not turn back the clock,” he added. “For measures that restrict trade will not be in the interests of any country.”

“Measures that restrict trade will not be in the interests of any country”-

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe

Mr Abe has lobbied President Trump for an exemption on steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by America – so far, to no avail. Like other leaders, Mr Abe must wonder if he can trust Mr Trump to hold to international agreements.

Still talking

Yet a quote from the Financial Times by the former leader of the Conservative party in Canada, Rona Ambrose, indicates why Mr Abe still values his talks with Mr Trump. “There is is nothing more important than leaders looking each other eye to eye,” she said. “Minds are changed and opinions are swayed.”


Tourism is good for the economy but is it messing up Japan’s beauty?





Japan has become the fastest growing tourist destination in the world.  While much of the media praises its success, there are also articles pointing out the problems.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation estimates that 28.7 million overseas travellers stayed in Japan in 2017, a rise of 334 per cent since 2010. The Daily Telegraph notes that this makes Japan the 12th most visited country on the planet.  

These impressive numbers were not achieved by accident. The Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made tourism a top priority as part of its Abenomics policy to revive the economy.

Asian arrivals

The influx of Chinese tourists is particularly striking. Last time I walked through Shinsaibashi (心斎橋) in the centre of Osaka, I seemed to hear more people speaking Chinese than Japanese. Most Chinese visitors to Japan say they are charmed by the hospitality of their polite hosts and this is good for relations between the two countries.

In fact, people from most of Asia may now enter Japan without a visa, including visitors from China, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Tourism pollution

However, as the media points out, there are challenges associated with the increased tourism. The Telegraph says that some residents of Kyoto complain the city is so overrun they can’t use local buses or get a reservation for their favourite restaurants. The paper says that the city’s refined atmosphere known as miyabi is under threat by kankō kōgai or “tourism pollution.”

When tourists come to Japan, they want to see peaceful tea houses in ancient zen gardens. Instead, they often find swarms of tourists taking pictures of each other outside famous attractions. This can be frustrating both for them and for the local residents. In an effort to address the problem, the Japanese government will, from next year, charge overseas visitors a ¥1,000 exit tax and use the funds to boost tourist infrastructure.

Neighbour’s admiration

Japan’s approach to tourism has been praised by other countries. The Joong Ang Daily says South Korea can learn from its neighbour’s success. Last year, Japan had double the number of tourists of Korea.

The Joong Ang admires the way the Japanese government has helped regions across the country promote their local histories, products and attractions. It says by not transforming every town and city into a generic metropolis, the government has welcomed overseas tourists to destinations beyond Tokyo.

This is a big contrast to Korea, where 78 percent of foreign visitors only visit Seoul and 20 percent restrict their travels to Jeju Island.

I hope that next time I go to South Korea, I will be able to learn more about the country by heading out into the countryside and visiting small towns. My friends assure me that there is much hidden beauty in South Korea, just as there is in Japan.