Yoko Ono (whose first name translates to ”ocean child”) was born on February 18th 1933 in Tokyo, Japan. She was born into a wealthy household: her mother’s family was in banking, and her father had given up a career as a pianist to work as a banker in Tokyo, and later in branch offices in San Francisco and New York. Yoko was the eldest of three children born to Eisuke and Isoko Ono. Yoko’s father did not see his first born until she was already walking and talking. He had left Japan six weeks before her birth, having been transferred from his bank to their San Francisco office. Yoko didn’t meet her father until Yoko and Isoko finally joined Eisuke in California in 1935. When Yoko was five, she returned to Japan with her mother and younger brother Keisuke who was born in December of 1936. Japanese troops had invaded China and anti-Japanese sentiment was rising in the United States. Yoko attended kindergarten and first grade in Japan. Yoko’s mother sent her first to the same school she had attended, but decided it wasn’t quite good enough for Yoko. Yoko began to attend the Gakushuin (Peers’ School) instead, which was at the time only open to those with relatives in the imperial family or the House of Peers. Yoko’s mother enjoyed the life of the upper class Tokyo elite, and paid little personal attention to her daughter.
In the 1940s Yoko realised she had to break away from the privileged upbringing imposed on her by the accident of being born into an aristocratic family. It was quite a liberal one by Japanese standards and her parents appreciated the arts, but they were too narrow-minded for Yoko. ”It was very claustrophobic. I would have died on a spiritual level if I had not got away. I can remember going to concerts and then walking out after a few minutes and I kept wondering, ”Why am I doing this?” I knew I wanted something different.” Yoko found her privileged upbringing stifling and lonely. She would ring for a maid to come to her room, simply to make contact with someone. The maid was not allowed to enter her room, even when summoned; she had to kneel outside in the hall and ask what little Yoko wanted. ”When she brings the tea, she can come in but not before. The only reason I asked for tea was because I wanted some communication. And so I think that’s where I started to dream. All sorts of things come into your mind”, she says. Yoko dreamed of breaking out but also of forging new ways of thinking her way beyond her isolation.
One night in 1945, when Yoko was a child, she huddled with her mother and two tiny siblings in an underground bunker while the largest number of American B29’s to attack a single Japanese city rained incendiary bombs on Tokyo by the thousands. Eighty-three-thousand people died; a quarter of the city burned. Yoko’s mother Isoko and the three children joined many of their neighbors in a headlong flight away from the burning city, out into open country. But the farmers in the countryside were starving and unenthusiastic about sharing whatever food they had hoarded with this tide of urban refugees. Yoko’s father was missing and possibly dead in Hanoi. The Onos were reduced to foraging from farm to farm for food, which they pulled along, with a few belongings, in an ancient-style wheeled cart.
”I had a young brother and sister I had to find food for. I couldn’t sleep, we were always evacuated. And you know what I used to love then? I used to love the sky. I thought, ”Whatever happens, the sky is blue”. When the bombs dropped, I was living in this country town where the farmers didn’t like city people, so they threw stones at you and wouldn’t give you food. I went through a period when I was really skin and bones, going around begging for food. It’s a long story, too long to tell.”
Yoko’s father survived the war and when Yoko was 19 she joined her family in Scarsdale, New York. Ono was tutored in classical piano as a child, and in her teens began keeping notebooks of her writings. She lived in Scarsdale and attended the nearby Sarah Lawrence College, where she continued writing, though without finding much support in her new environment. ”Whenever I wrote I poem, they said it was too long, it was like a short story”, she said later. ”And a short story was like a poem. I felt that I was like a misfit in every medium.”
Ono’s early musical background and training had a strong impact on her subsequent work. As a child she attended the prestigious Jiyu-gakuen Music School in Japan, the training school for many Japanese composers. She was taught piano and composition, and played her first public concert at the age of four. A piece of homework reveals a telling early source for her work: she was asked to translate all the sounds she had heard that day into notes. Later, whilst attending Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville at the age of twenty two, she heard birdsong and decided to translate it into musical notes. Finding it impossible, she made her first composition: Secret Piece (1955). Her musical training had included voice training in both opera and German Lied singing. The one constant in her life has been her work as as artist and musician, which began in the 1950s. ”It is what I call my security blanket against so much that has happened to me”, she said in an interview in 2000.