Kazuki and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Father and Son: Excerpts from KS’s Biography

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s father, Kazuki Sakamoto (12.8.1921-9.28.2002), was an editor, co-founder of Kawade Shobo Shinsha, and former chief editor of the magazine Bungei. He was known for being the editor in charge of Yukio Mishima, Kazumi Takahashi, and many other key figures of postwar literature.
His biography The Legendary Editor: Kazuki Sakamoto and his Time was first published in 2003, and Kawade Shobo published its Bunko version in 2018. The author Sonoko Tanabe, Kazuki Sakamoto’s former colleague, gives an extensive account of his life and career. This book is a must-read for people interested in postwar literary history, intellectual history, and the influences Ryuichi Sakamoto received from his family.

Excerpted from The Legendary Editor: Kazuki Sakamoto and his Time by Sonoko Tanabe
English translation by Stella Hsieh
All footnotes are by the original author unless otherwise stated.
Trigger warning: mentions of depression, self-harm, and eating disorder in excerpts from chapter 7.

Chapter 1
Kazuki Sakamoto was born on December 8, 1921, in Amagi, Fukuoka Prefecture. He was the eldest of six siblings. In middle school, he was nicknamed “Kame-san”and was a highly respected prefect. He was the captain of the swimming club and excelled at running and swimming. He was cheerful and funny, making everyone around him laugh. After graduating from junior high school, he moved to Tokyo and entered the Department of Japanese Literature at Nihon University. (Actually, he failed the entrance exam for the old-system high school[1], and couldn’t face his friends as a prefect, so he fled to Tokyo.)
In December 1943, he graduated early from university and went to war in Manchuria as a student dispatched to the front[2].

Here is an excerpt from a book [3] written by his son Ryuichi.
…I never looked my father in the face until I went to high school. First of all, he was not there. He was home about once a month on Sundays, but he slept until noon. Even if I saw his face, I couldn’t talk to him properly because I was too scared. But I think I did respect him.
However, I liked listening to my father’s stories about the army. He told me a frightening story about being suddenly surrounded by stray dogs while standing on patrol in Manchuria. And he told me that you could see Soviet soldiers encamping around the fire just across the border- he went to the front line like that. He was a student [at the time of departure for the front] and was a second lieutenant when Japan lost the war. I heard he was in the communications corps and could send out a Morse code like this, “tong tong tu tu.” He seemed very proud of that.

The father looked proud in the eyes of the young boy Ryuichi, although too busy with work to meet, must have been an awe-inspiring presence to the son.

[1] Translator’s note: Old-system high schools were higher education institutions in Japan existing from Meiji to the early Showa period. They provided preparatory courses equivalent to today’s university liberal arts courses to male students to prepare them for undergraduate studies, mostly public imperial universities. The competition for entering high schools was even more intense than college entrance in prewar Japan, and old system high school students were regarded as social elites.
[2] Translator’s note: In 1943, in order to make up for the lack of troops at the end of World War II, Imperial Japan started to draft students over 20 years old into the military. Most of them were students of humanities. Students from overseas Japanese colonies were also targets of the Student Mobilization policy.
[3] Ryuichi Sakamoto, Seldom Illegal, 1991.12, Kadokawa Bunko.

Chapter 4
The son Ryuichi talks about his childhood in his book.[4]
Among the writers who used to come to our home, I remember Minoru Oda and Kazumi Takahashi well. They had been coming to our house often since I was in elementary school. They used to drink until morning, chatting and yelling. Also, the people I thought were cool on the phone were Yutaka Hani, Rinzo Shiina, and Shohei Ooka. My father used very polite speech when he was not drinking, but he became a mess when he got drunk. He would say, “What’s the matter with you!” to writers. (laughs) Getting drunk, he would say to Tsutomu Mizukami, “Mizukami! What the hell was that work of yours!” and roared at him, “Rewrite your novel!” (laughs). Now that I think about it, it was amazing. He was the editor in charge of Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, so I guess you could call him amazing, but he was just scary in my child’s mind.
The father Kazuki Sakamoto- scary, amazing, sometimes cool, sometimes messy, was 27 years old when he brought out Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask in 1949. Ryuichi Sakamoto had not been born into this world.

[4] Seldom Illegal.

Chapter 7
Ryuichi Sakamoto has an intriguing conversation with his contemporary psychiatrist, Katsufumi Matsunami, about his mental state around the time he formed YMO.[5]
…At some point, I was in a state of depression, and I felt self-loathing and wanted to hurt myself. I had been hurting myself for more than half a year. As for how I recovered, if I were to hurt myself anymore, I would lose the very subject I was trying to hurt- that is to say, myself. I recovered rapidly after realizing that.
…Then, the body is cut off to the point of exhaustion, for example, not eating, refusing to eat, and not sleeping. And when you are on the verge of self-destruction and have reached that point, it suddenly occurs to you that the meaning of self-loathing has been lost already… I think it was when the YMО project started that my lifestyle changed completely. I like being anonymous, or rather, like anonymity. I was not very good at going out in front of others. I could play the piano alone for hours since I was a child, so I didn’t like to be in front of others, and I often had auditory hallucinations of people calling my name. In that case, when I was walking on the street and someone said, “Oh, it’s Sakamoto!” It was almost like a terrifying auditory hallucination happened in reality, and I was confused by the sudden change.

Even though Ryuichi Sakamoto is involved in works that are seen by many, such as conducting concerts and the Olympics and appearing in movies and TV commercials, he is by nature a shy, introverted person. His father Kazuki Sakamoto, who chose to work behind the scenes as an editor, is also an anonymous person. Like his son Ryuichi, he is probably “not very good at going out in front of others.”

After Kazuki Sakamoto’s death, Mitsuo Fujita, an editor at Kawade Shobo, skillfully describes him as someone who rarely appears at any kind of literary party.[6]
Standing upright at a round table near the entrance, giving a friendly smile that he doesn’t show in the workplace when people come to greet him, or going around the venue to address the appropriate person- he seldom does these things even at parties hosted by his own company. He just drinks mizuwari with an unappetizing expression and smokes.
A skilled editor considers these meetings a place of work, and it is also an important part of his job to keep up appearances. But Mr. Sakamoto gives the strong impression of being an awkward person who seems uncomfortable on such occasions.

[5] Seldom Illegal.
[6] Mitsuo Fujita, The Awkward Guy: In Memory of Kazuki Sakamoto, 2003.1, The Zelkova Tree.

Chapter 13
I frequently went to Sakamoto’s house to fetch scanned copies of each book, manuscripts of Momo Iida, and bookbinding materials. Kazuki Sakamoto was a boss who would not tolerate even a one-millimeter error, to put it another way, I had to go back and forth between Sakamoto’s house in Chitose-karasuyama and the company office in Kanda just to make a one-millimeter correction. My colleagues at the company called it “commuting to the Karasuyama office.”
When Ryuichi boy was playing the piano in the back of the house, Kazuki Sakamoto would yell, “RYUICHI! STOP IT! TOO NOISY!”And Ryuichi would stop playing without saying a word. Some people in the company were relieved when Kazuki Sakamoto took a day off, but I supposed that his family was more comfortable when he was at work.
Sometimes Ryuichi would stand by and watch as his father gave me instructions on binding printed materials, but he was downcast and silent most of the time. Although Mrs. Sakamoto was interacting with her husband very lively, I have never encountered the boy and his father in cheerful conversation. Perhaps Ryuichi was smart from an early age and possessed the wisdom to avoid wasting energy. And as is often the case with only children, he probably nurtured within himself a world of his own in which others could not intervene.

Chapter 15
Ryuichi talks about creative acts.[7]
It seems there are [creative acts] in the movies and pop music now, but there aren’t. In fact, it was demolished once. But people can’t build something new after dismantling, so they reexamine the things they demolished, create and revise a manual on how to make something like this from 1 to 10000, and then follow the manual when doing it. So, today’s pop music, which I call “manual pop music,” is all manuals. I don’t sense any motivation to create something in them, nor for the movies. People are just obsessed with the pleasure of doing a very manual act of creation in a very precise, ultra-tech, and high-tech way. I don’t think any creative act is taking place there.

As shown here, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s creative act is identical to the ideas of his father Kazuki Sakamoto. Unlike his father who grew up in the era of oppressive militarism, Ryuichi Sakamoto was born in the liberated post-war era. He grew up in metropolitan Tokyo which is different from the remote countryside of Kyushu, breathing the air of freedom without being bound to the conventions. The difference between the father Kazuki Sakamoto and the son Ryuichi lies in the circumstances of the times in which they lived, and the environment in which they were situated. Despite being seemingly completely different, father and son are exactly the same nature in terms of the origin or the starting point of their creative acts.
Instead of using cheap tricks or the so-called “manual”, Kazuki Sakamoto is an editor who has always made it his mission to present his own original products to his readers. And it can be said that this is at the root of what his son Ryuichi expresses in musical activities.

The scars of war carried by the father would probably no longer be understood by his son Ryuichi. Because he belongs to the generation that says, “For me, when mentioning postwar, I mean not only the postwar period of World War II, but also the Vietnam War.”[8]
In his book, Ryuichi describes an exchange he had with a female fan when he gave a concert in Amsterdam. The couple, who had immigrated to the Netherlands from Indonesia, were such fans that they named their child after Ryuichi. When the husband passed away, the widow gave Ryuichi Sakamoto a photo of her husband and a drawing of their child, Ryuichi, and said,
“My father was killed by the Japanese. I have hated all Japanese people since then. Many years later, I moved here from Indonesia. Then I heard your music and it changed my mind. I don’t hate all Japanese anymore. I can’t hate you, the Japanese who make that kind of music, not even a little bit. So I came here today to confirm it with my own ears, and I’m not mistaken. You were wonderful today.”
I listened and was stunned, but I felt I had to say something, so I said something stupid like, “I didn’t kill your father.”

It is unlikely that Kazuki Sakamoto, a member of the Manchurian communications corps, had any direct experience of killing or wounding people in the war. But the anecdote told by Ryuichi is interesting because it seems to be an atonement by the son’s peaceful generation for the actions of the parents’ generation during the war. How free is the son, unlike his father, who is clad in the military disciplines of the Japanese army and unable to break free from the repressed, obstinate ideology?
I wonder how would Kazuki Sakamoto react when told by a foreign woman, “My father was killed by the Japanese.” There is no doubt that some kinds of complicated pain would cross. That is the difference between the father carrying the imprint of the military experience and the son, who grew up in a peaceful environment.

[7] The Complete Works of Ryuichi Sakamoto, 1991.12, Ohta Publishing.
[8] Series: What is Postwar Literature? (Joint Discussion), 1985.6, Bungakukai.
[9] Ryu Murakami and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Friend, We Shall Meet Again, 1992.8. Kadokawa Shoten.

Afterword for the Bunko Collection
This book came into being because, when Kazuki Sakamoto was still alive, his son Ryuichi asked me to write a book about his father in his lifetime.
Kazuki Sakamoto used to be my boss. Back in 1961, during the preparation for the resumption of Bungei, the chief editor Kazuki Sakamoto appointed me to join the Kawade Shobo Shinsha (The New Kawade Publishing House) as a staff member.
Looking back, I remember the first time I met Ryuichi Sakamoto at his home when Mrs. Sakamoto introduced me to a lovely round-faced boy who was not yet ten years old. He smiled and quickly bowed his head. Mrs. Sakamoto looked at her son and said, “He’s composing music.” And I remembered myself asking back in surprise, “What, composing at such a young age?”
In contrast to Kazuki Sakamoto, who was taciturn like an ancient samurai, his wife was gorgeous, cheerful, and lively. There was an air of freedom in the Sakamoto household that was completely different from the suffocating and strict workplace atmosphere created by Kazuki Sakamoto. The wife was probably in charge of all the childrearing and domestic matters.

As per Ryuichi’s request, “[please finish the book] while my father was still alive,” I delivered my nearly finished manuscript to Kazuki Sakamoto and he carefully read them, corrected my misunderstandings and mistakes, and gave me further general instructions and detailed requests. That was probably the last one in his history of reading many manuscripts. Perhaps because I wrote that his former subordinate called him “a difficult person to deal with,” he seemed to have a wry smile on his face when we met.
The book was published posthumously according to his wishes, but I realized that Kazuki Sakamoto was a man who continued to have the spirit of an editor long after his retirement.


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