a yoko ono biography
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Lenono Photo Archive, Courtesy of Yoko Ono