Yoko Ono is forever associated with the Beatles, yet her aristocratic family life in imperial Japan, long before she met John Lennon, was equally intriguing. For the first time, she opens up the Ono family album.
She may not look it, but Yoko Ono, a woman who has survived three decades of tragedy, debunking and myth, is now 77 years old. For many of those years, she has been blamed, perhaps unfairly, for the break-up of the world’s best-loved musical partnership: she was the woman who came between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, insisting on being in the studio as the band disintegrated. She also cradled Lennon just a few seconds after the fatal shots from a revolver rang out on a cold New York night in December 1980.
As she has grown older she has become — perhaps inevitably — more reflective about her past. She has mellowed and in recent years visits to Japan have become more frequent. She returned with Lennon several times in the 1970s at a point in his life when he had all but disappeared from public view.
Yoko is back in Japan for a three-week trip and, for the first time, has agreed to a journalist accompanying her to write about this side of her multi-faceted life. This is also the first time she has agreed to open up in depth about her childhood, her awkward, distant upbringing in a quasi-aristocratic family in Tokyo, and Lennon’s relationship with her parents. Only now is she truly comfortable returning to Japan.
The journeys back with Lennon were sporadic, and sometimes difficult. When Lennon came here with Yoko for the first time in 1971 — just a year after the break-up of the Beatles — he was surprised to find that his monumental fame cut no ice with his in-laws. The couple had known each other for four years, but Lennon had only the smallest inkling of Yoko’s social status and made no effort to ingratiate himself.
“He just went to my parents’ place unshaven, and wearing an army-surplus coat,” she says. “Just the most hip outfit, very rock’n’roll! I mean, rock’n’roll can be a performance in a theatre, a beautiful, gorgeous thing. But he was just looking like a bum. This kind of ‘here I am’ attitude.
“My family was not enamoured. If some families had a son or a daughter involved with the Beatles, maybe they would say, ‘We’d like to meet that guy, we’d like to be invited to a Beatles concert.’ There was none of that, of course.”
Yoko explains that she came from exalted, upper-class stock to whom the Beatles were irrelevant. Both her socialite, feminist mother and banker father were scions of families with high-level imperial, political, industrial and financial connections.
The family’s money had been made several generations earlier by her great-grandfather Zenjiro Yasuda: this would intrigue Lennon when they returned to Japan in the 1970s. During one of their visits, he picked up a Japanese news magazine that contained a feature on prominent Japanese figures who had shaped the country into a modern industrial and economic powerhouse.
“It was about all these people who influenced and affected Japan in history,” Yoko remembers. Lennon knew nothing of Yasuda, but as Yoko told him more, he paused to reflect.
Yasuda had refused the offer of a baronetcy from the then emperor; generations separated the two men, but only a few years before his visit to Japan, Lennon had handed back his MBE in protest against the British role in the Biafran war and support of America in Vietnam. Yoko says that he looked at a portrait of Yasuda and said: “That guy is me in my past life.”
“He just said that out of the blue,” Yoko recalls. “And I said, ‘Don’t wish for that. Because he was assassinated.’ ” She found out years later that her great-grandfather shared a birthday with her late husband.
As we drive outside Tokyo to the John Lennon Museum, which houses around 130 items of memorabilia from Yoko’s personal collection, I am surprised by her humour and vivacity. For a woman closer to 80 than 70, she is spry and active in a fitted, plunging jacket, and dressed from head to toe in black.
Elsewhere in the city there are reminders of her previous incarnation as a young Japanese aristocrat. Yoko, small and neat in her Bulgari sunglasses and jauntily angled hat, perches on the balcony of the Hibiya Hall, the people’s concert auditorium built more than 80 years ago by Yasuda — a self-made billionaire whose largesse to the citizens of Tokyo is commemorated in a large bronze relief high on the wall.
Located in a prestigious site near the Imperial Palace, Hibiya Hall is one of a handful of buildings in the Japanese capital that survived the city’s firebombing by the US airforce in the final months of the second world war.
Yoko, a teenager at the time, was not spared the deprivations experienced by the rest of the population. She talks of being evacuated to the countryside, and foraging for mulberries. At the time, her father was interned by the Americans in French Indochina. “It was a concentration camp. But not really a bad one,” she says. “He might have had a different opinion.” The family, housed in a bomb shelter for a time during the war, often went hungry — they traded her mother’s much-loved silk dress for a week’s worth of rice. “It’s not that I was begging for food,” Yoko says firmly and proudly. “Begging is not the kind of thing I do.
“When the B52s passed over our garden, after we came out of the shelter, we saw this huge piece of metal that dropped from the plane. It said ‘Piss on you!’ And Mamma looked it up in the dictionary and of course there was nothing there. And then our uncle, who went to Princeton, he was visiting and my mother said, ‘So what is “Piss on you?” “And he said, ‘I can’t discuss that in front of a lady!’ ” Yoko laughs. “Isn’t that amazing?”
Even though she was young at the time, she can still recall the horrific bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “They said something terrible happened, very bad things that [the Americans] used, and so we had to capitulate and we had to end the war. I remember the Emperor for the first time spoke on the radio. We had never heard him speak — of course not, he was God.”
Like many members of her family, Yoko attended a school in Tokyo that was reserved for the Japanese ruling classes. It was a life of isolation and privilege. In her childhood home, Kudan House, up to 20 servants would wait on her, but she had no friends. “It didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to play with people.” She shared this sense of estrangement with Lennon, who also endured a lonely childhood in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton, where he lived with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George.
Her great-grandfather Yasuda, the creator of her family's wealth, was the son of a samurai. In 1858, when he was 20, he moved to Tokyo to become a servant. An entrepreneur by nature, at the age of 28, he opened a money-changing house and went on to found the Yasuda Bank. It began as a bank for ordinary people with a branch in every village, and grew into a hugely lucrative and influential business conglomerate.
Yasuda was killed in 1921 by a sword-wielding socialist named Heigo Asahi.
“Afterwards Asahi killed himself and left a letter to the world, saying that he’s assassinated this capitalist. But some people believe that he had asked my great-grandfather for money and he was refused. And others believe that he was just a very enthusiastic socialist.”
Later that week Yoko takes me to Kudan House, where we are given a tour by the wife of the Filipino ambassador: the building is now their official residence.
“I feel really sentimental about this,” says Yoko as we stand in the kitchen. She has brought with her a book of photographs of John Lennon at Kudan House in 1977. That summer he organised an Ono/Yasuda family reunion here. Lennon’s own childhood was blighted by his mother’s absence, and his whole life turned upside down by her death in a car accident when he was 17. He was “very keen” that their infant son Sean “should understand where his mother grew up”. Yoko was less keen. “I said, ‘Why would I want to see these people just because they’re blood relatives?’ Why would I want to see these boring people? They’re the kind of people I left to make my own life.”
We take the bullet train to Karuizawa, an Alpine-like mountain community founded as a summer resort by a Canadian missionary of Scots descent, Alexander Croft Shaw (1846-1902), and full of second homes owned by Tokyo’s wealthy elite. We visit the 116-year-old Manpei Hotel, where Lennon and Ono stayed during summer visits. The Ono family home was nearby but it lacked room service, which mattered much to Lennon. He was partial to the Royal Milk Tea (the gift shop sells packets of it marked “For John”).
Another haunt of the Lennons — well off Yoko’s family radar — was the unassuming Rizanbo cafe, tucked away in the woods on the town’s outskirts, in the shadow of volcanic Mount Asama. On the walls are holiday photographs taken in the successive summers of 1977, ’78 and ’79 of Lennon, Yoko and Sean, and a self-portrait of Lennon drinking tea. “John and I were so happy riding around on bicycles,” she recalls. “Sean loved it too. It was just a beautiful time.”
Here in the woods, far away from the long shadow of the Beatles, they could enjoy being a family. “It was a moment when we were really trying to take child-rearing seriously.”
Pinned to the wall of the Rizanbo is a thank-you letter to the owner from Yoko, dated July 29, 2006. “Seeing these photographs from 30 years ago choked me up,” it reads in Japanese. “It is so nice to see how relaxed John was… You never really saw John so relaxed with other people around. It really made me feel nostalgic.”
At 77, Yoko seems to be tying up loose ends in her life. She now gets on well with her first child, Kyoko, from whom she was once estranged. Kyoko is Yoko’s daughter by her second husband, the American jazz musician Tony Cox (she was previously married to the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi), who disappeared with Kyoko in 1971 when she was eight and raised her in a religious cult. For years, Yoko didn’t even know her daughter was alive. But she admits she had been a poor mother who twice deserted her young family before Cox went into hiding with Kyoko. First she abandoned them in Tokyo for a new life in New York. “I just had to rescue myself — and then they followed me. When I was alone, New York life was sort of okay. But when they came, it was just hell.” She left them again for London, “and they followed me again”, Yoko says. “I was just a silly person,” she concedes. “The thing is, in London, I started to warm towards Kyoko. She was so sweet.”
They finally made contact again in the 1990s.
This year — the 30th anniversary of his death — Lennon would have turned 70. Yoko has guarded her husband’s legacy and meets her lawyer every Tuesday to discuss the latest developments concerning his estate. Not for the money, though. She doesn’t need it.
“This is a very interesting thing,” she says.
“My great-grandfather Zenjiro created a huge financial power. And the reason was, in those days bankers were the people who were seriously changing the world.” But her father, who was a frustrated concert pianist, had a different view. “He said, ‘No, they’re not the ones — it’s going to be music that’s going to change the world.’ And he was right.”