Interview: Yoko Ono

Boing Boing special feature
Interview: Yoko Ono
By Xeni Jardin

Artist and peace activist Yoko Ono (78), wife of the late John Lennon, was recently honored with the 8th Hiroshima Art Prize. The award honors artists whose work has contributed to peace. To commemorate this, The Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art is hosting "The Road of Hope: Yoko Ono 2011," an exhibit honoring the "spirit of Hiroshima that yearns for permanent world peace and prosperity for all humanity."

The show is on display through October 16, 2011. It features new works by Yoko Ono inspired by the survival of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and by the disasters that struck Japan in March, 2011, "with hope for the future."

I spoke to Yoko Ono in Japan a few days after she received the Hiroshima prize. She was in Tokyo to speak about "The Road of Hope" at the MORI art museum.

Yoko Ono at the MORI museum last week

Xeni Jardin, Boing Boing: A few days ago, you were in Hiroshima accepting an award for your your legacy of art in the service of peace. You were a young girl here in Japan when the event happened. What was that day like?

Yoko Ono: Yes, I think I was 12. It was a shock of course, but at the time, initially we didn't know what happened. I heard about it from somebody in the village. It's a very, very different kind of bomb, they said, we have to immediately stop the war. It didn't make sense to me at all, in any way. We didn't understand.

XJ: At what point did the magnitude or the nature of what had happened become more clear to you?

YO: Well, every day, from then on. They were reporting in newspapers and magazines what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it was just — it was something that you just could not understand. It was just so bad.

XJ: Trying to grasp the full scope of what had happened must have been something that unfolded over many years for you, your family, and for all of your fellow countrymen and women.

YO: Well you see, it was because of Pearl Harbor, and so the rest of the world was very, very cold to us when the bombs dropped. Like, "Oh, they deserved it." That kind of thinking.

And of course in those days, the idea of what an enemy is, and what is fair to do to enemies were very different. For America to have bombed civilians was something that most people accepted. But women and children, old and young, they all suffered. If it had happened not to Japan but in a Western country, maybe the West would have felt differently about it. But that's how it was. And the Japanese people, especially the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they had to endure the whole thing without any kindness or compassion from the world. Despite the meanness directed at them, even after the bombing, they stood up and survived, and they created a normal situation out of the ashes of that horror, which I believe is amazing.

The whole of Japan helped them. I learned when I was in Hiroshima, for instance, that many trees were sent from other towns throughout Japan, to be planted there to renew the bare ground. People throughout the country tried to help, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to stand up on their own, as well, of course.

And in a very strange way, even though they were victims and martyrs of a terrible thing, now they are not victims. They are the people who created a strong, strong recovery. They show to the world that this is what we can do, instead of all the myths that were created about those places — the myth that you could never enter those places after what happened, and that you couldn't return into those cities. Just walking in there is dangerous.

But now, they're two beautiful cities again. And the world sees that.

XJ: The fact that they were able to survive and to create a place that was habitable is amazing.

YO: Yes, but the point is that means that it takes the rest of the world, too, because what happened there did not just happen to Hiroshima or Nagasaki or to Japan, but to the entire world. This was a world event, and we all suffered from it, and we must all learn from it.

XJ: Your return to Hiroshima this week was connected with your artwork over the past decades, and your work for peace. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about your thoughts about the connection between art and survival, about human creativity as a tool that helps individuals and communities prevail over suffering. This is a theme I've seen a lot in your work.

YO: Creativity is part of the growth of human beings, just like creativity is part of the growth of nature. And whenever something stops your growth, that's when you really have to fight. It's very important that we keep creating things.

Why? To show the process of activity, to show that we're still alive. To create is to express life.

Yoko Ono delivers a lecture at the MORI Art Museum in Tokyo

XJ: Just this year, Japan experienced another tremendous disaster and the scope of this disaster, the earthquake, the tsunami, and now the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the scope of which we're still learning.

YO: It is a disaster, and it is ongoing, and we still do not truly know the scope. Many people ask me, "What do you think we should do about the nuclear crisis?" I'm saying, "I'm just as ignorant as you are about it." This is something where we have to just see what happens. But while we are seeing what happens, we can keep on creating a healthy life as much as we can. And we must.

XJ: You said earlier that people thought Hiroshima and Nagasaki would become permanent, uninhabitable dead zones. With the current crisis here in Japan, I've heard people in Tokyo talk about people from towns near the exclusion zone being shunned as if they have a contagious disease, as if you could "catch" cesium contamination; people are talking about that entire zone just being sort of locked off forever. The families, even the children who are from there are in some cases being treated as if they were lepers. It's as if that very sad part of history is repeating itself.

YO: Yeah, exactly.

See, the thing is — that's where I'm seeing the road of hope, because leprosy was something — it was considered as something that was like the dead end. All the lepers were sent to an island and they were supposed to be there until they died or something. And AIDS, in the beginning it was believed that all people who had AIDS should be shunned and feared, and would die similarly.

All that is not true now, because there was a sudden change in understanding that was created by scientists. But we just have to allow a certain space in emotion or understanding, we have to know that anything could happen, in either direction: the whole world after this disaster could all die together, this situation might leak to all the other countries as well.

Or, we're just suddenly going to find something. And even the people who are contaminated and we're thinking, "Oh they are lepers" or something, they are going to be well or they're going to be better than us.

I went to Hiroshima and I saw this tree that was directly under the bomb. And this tree survived, and it looks even better than some of the other trees. You can never know what will happen with that incredible release of energy. It can kill, but it might be an energy that's going to bring some incredible, incredible growth. Those are things that we don't know. Now we're being extremely emotional and fearful in our judgment, and that's okay. It's understandable. But it's much better to keep a little space there for some kind of totally unexpected situation to happen in a good way.

And by being so emotional and so angry and so determined that nothing good is going to happen, we may not let it happen.

Some people say that I'm very optimistic. I'm not optimistic. I'm just practical. If you want to give up, then go ahead: give up. But I'm not about to give up.

And there are many people like me, who don't want to give up life. And so all of us should just — the ones who don't really want to give up life, we have to walk this road of hope together.

That's what I think. And we're doing it. We're doing it together.

Yoko Ono today published an editorial concerning Hiroshima Day at Imagine Peace.

More at Boing Boing

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