Music journalist Yukawa Reiko has been close to Ono Yōko since the mid-1970s. Here, she shares some of her memories of the person behind the famous name.
TO INTERVIEW What does Ono Yōko look like as a person?
YUKAWA REIKO The first time I saw her on stage was when the Plastic Ono Band performed in Japan in 1974. She made a big impression by waving her long hair wildly and singing with that shrill cry of one voice. I felt she was someone who was determined to fight with whatever she had, despite the psychological scars she bore. She contacted me after I saw the concert again. We talked and got very friendly. Then I also met John Lennon on his subsequent visits to Japan.
TO INTERVIEW People think of her as a very strong woman.
YUKAWA I think she still has a shield to protect herself from the world. But deep down, I think she’s pretty vulnerable. Her son Sean understands that side of her, I think. After John was killed in December 1980, Sean apparently did all he could to console and encourage his mother. She later said that it was only thanks to Sean that she was able to get through those days after the murder.
TO INTERVIEW Do you think Paul McCartney understood Yōko?
YUKAWA I wouldn’t say they were particularly close, but I think he understood how much she meant to John, that he loved her more than anyone. And that Youko was his own wife, someone who was determined to do things her own way. And he always knew she was a sensitive woman who had a pretty sweet side behind that somewhat intimidating exterior.
TO INTERVIEW John and Youko often seemed more or less inseparable.
YUKAWA I think they really wanted to know everything about each other. And they were still talking. Even in the elevator to their Dakota apartment in New York. Sometimes you wondered how they never ran out of things to say.
John and Youko were opposed in many ways: male and female, yin and yang, east and west, upper class and working class. To John, Youko was a mother, a lover, a prostitute and a sister. And John was also a lot of things to Youko: father, lover, gigolo and brother.
Physically, I think there was this perfect chemistry between them. Youko always used to wear those huge sunglasses that covered his nose. She used to say it was because John said she was cute around them.
TO INTERVIEW They also had to have things in common.
YUKAWA I think they shared things like loneliness, honesty, and sensitivity.
John lost his mother as a teenager in Liverpool. He was raised by an aunt, but I think he always felt a sense of isolation. Youko was born into a family that lacked nothing financially, but as a child, she grew up having her meals alone in this large house. But she was loved by her parents. I believe that people who have been loved unconditionally are able to love others unconditionally as well. And they have this ability to always be positive.
I think that’s why Yōko has always had positive messages to share: “Dream together”, “The war is over if you want to”, etc. Sometimes I used to think, why not try to change the message for once? But it was still the same. “The war will only end if this is what people really want in their hearts,” she said. “And that’s why the message is always the same.”
TO INTERVIEW Compared to his art, many people find Yōko’s music rather inaccessible.
YUKAWA At Double Fantasy, last album released before John’s death in 1980, the songs alternate, one by John then one by Yoko. The first song is “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John and it is suddenly followed by “Kiss Kiss Kiss” by Youko. I think people were surprised or put off by this. I have to admit that I found this a bit surprising myself.
Everyone had been eagerly awaiting John’s first new music in five years. And then here’s Yōko, interrupting the songs. To be honest, it wasn’t what most people were hoping for. I asked him the question once: Couldn’t you have split the songs on two sides of the album? Like, put yours on side A and John’s on side B? She just said, “Why? There are all kinds of nasty sounds in life. Fighter planes, tanks, dump trucks. Compare my songs to that. Can’t you hear the love in them? They are quite pleasing to the ear compared to these things.
TO INTERVIEW She also sparked controversy when she used the bloodstained glasses John wore the day he was shot on the cover of his 1981 album, Glass season.
YUKAWA I guess most people would have wanted to wash the blood off right away. Instead, she took a photo of the glasses by the window in Dakota, with the Manhattan skyline in the background. She then used the same image to convey a message about gun violence and gun control, juxtaposing the image with an ongoing tally showing how many people have been killed by guns since John’s death. I think it was a remarkable thing to do.
TO INTERVIEW There aren’t many strong women like that today.
YUKAWA I think it’s true that there aren’t many women who live their lives with the same kind of will and determination to be themselves. In Japan, many women of a certain class are traditionally happy to sit down and enjoy the easy life after marriage. The husband’s salary is paid into the wife’s account each month, and the wife is free to have a leisurely lunch in fancy restaurants. It is only in Japan that this happens. It’s quite strange, really, the idea that you would have more freedom, at least financially, by getting married. Sometimes I feel like women should be greedy and more possessive of their own lives. This is something I think we could all learn from Ono Yōko.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Ono Yōko during a visit to Japan in October 2005 for the Dream Power John Lennon Super Live event. © Jiji, Nippon Broadcasting System.)