We are made of the environment


We are made of the environment

Ryuichi Sakamoto Interview

Interview: Yumiko Sakuma / Photos: Courtesy of moreTrees

It is hard to think of an artist who is more multifaceted than Ryuichi Sakamoto, one of the founding members of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, a Japanese techno-pop band from the 70’s, he has collaborated with many cinematic geniuses, both through music scores and appearances, such as Pedro Almodovar, Bernardo Bertolucci, Oliver Stone and Nagisa Oshima, and the long list of his musical collaborators starting with David Byrne and Iggy Pop goes on and on.  And his reach is way beyond the world of music; not only has he been involved with many activist groups such as the Free Tibet movement, and the anti-nuclear energy effort in Japan, but he has also started more trees, a non-profit organization he uses as a hub for various environmental related activities.  With more trees, he has recently taken another challenge: finding a use for exterminated deer.  Sakamoto offers an explanation as to why he thinks it is important.


  (This story was originally published in Periscope iPad edition vol. 1. For the full, interactive story with a full length video, go to the app store.)

Can you tell us about your deer project?
   With one of more trees’ projects, I’ve had opportunities to speak with the elders who are engaged in forestation and I learned that the population growth of deer has been a major problem all over Japan.  Japanese Wolves, their natural enemy, have gone extinct over a century. As not many regions in Japan have a custom of eating deer, the consumption level isn’t very high.  Starving deer go into the forest where we plant trees, and strip and eat bark and even nursery trees. They also come down to farms and damage their crops. So the Environment Ministry has been exterminating deer, but the bodies are disposed with no use.  So we felt the urge to find a beneficial use for deer bodies and started discussing the possibilities of product development.  We had founded more trees design so that we could develop products using timbers disposed from forest thinning.  About a year ago, in order to tackle the problem, the government increased the financial incentives for the hunters. The requirement is the deer’s ears and the tail. So this invited new hunters who’d kill deer, chop their ears and the tail and leave the bodies behind.
How did you come to think of using deer hide for fashion?
   We tried supporting the aspect of turning them into edible meat. Working with local people, we hold workshops where you can learn about using deer meat in restaurants. Then we thought of what we could use the hide for and started exploring product options.
Would it make sense economically?
   With timbers from thinning forests, it costs to bring timbers down, dry and produce them into usable wood.  Back in the day, we might have made chopsticks out of them, but there are much cheaper chopsticks imported from overseas.  So we figured to make well designed products first, tell the consumers what they are, and get their attention.  We have a product development team at more trees design, but for it to make economical sense, we have to sell products. It is same with deer hide and the answer remains to be seen.  As we want it to spread from the designers and makers to consumers, we are trying to work with top level designers.  We are still at the infancy phase.
Deer skin leather hasn’t been a major source for bags and shoes.
   It might be used more than you’d think.  In Japan, we exterminate about 40,000 deer, but we still import deer skin from China and New Zealand. Domestically, the supply chain hasn’t been securely established and deer skin get damaged easily in the process of killing and skinning.  That might be why we have been relying on imported deer skin.
Not much attention has been paid to where all these leathers come from.
   Exactly.  For example, to make ultra soft leather that is desirable for luxury bags, some producers would slaughter calfs alive in boiling water. Do we want leather to be that soft at the expense of that? We need to think about where these things come from and ideally they should come out of our food chain.  The difficulty is that some environmentalists might not like the idea of products that come out of forest thinning. With the deer hide, there are those who have a problem with animal leather.  But these ideals don’t solve the situations. Of course I wish that nature stood on its own without the artificial forestation.  If deer don’t have a natural enemy, humans would have to take that place.  It is about the balance, but if we kill something, at the least we should find a good use.  It is not such black and white between consumerism and environmentalism.
I think of you as a global citizen.  How did you come to who you are today?
   Back in the 1980’s when Japan was enjoying the Bubble Economy Era, there was a popular phrase Tojin which meant an extreme form of consumption. I was living that word and was extremely capitalistic.  In 1991, my youngest son was born.  Around the same time, I realized I was aging and bought my first pair of reading glasses. I read the Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome that was written in 1972.  The book taught me that humans’ perspectives are so narrow, especially about the future.  I hadn’t thought about the future much before, but when my youngest was born, I thought about raising him for 20 years and started to pay attention to my health.  That led me to think about things I was putting in my body.  Things you eat, drink and inhale, they all have to do with environment. I myself am made of the environment. That is how I started to change.
What is your idea of Utopia?
   In 1999, when I made an Opera titled Life, I asked a lot of notable people a question, What is your salvation? I asked people like Laurie Anderson, Bernardo Bertolucchi, I even asked His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and incorporated the video and sound of these answers into the Opera.  Among them, Bertolucchi’s answer was superb. He said “That there is no salvation is salvation.”  Utopia to me is a society where we don’t have to think about salvation and Utopia.  I sometimes wish we lived in the world where a musician doesn’t have to raise his voice and can just focus on music making.   


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