Ryuichi Sakamoto delivers a message for World Cancer Day. (Wataru Sekita)

Award-winning musician Ryuichi Sakamoto couldn't believe it when he found himself among the 1 million people newly diagnosed with cancer in Japan each year.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Sakamoto says he discovered the ultimate cause of the disease after having cancer himself and giving serious thought to it.

The interview was conducted ahead of World Cancer Day on Feb. 4.

Born in Tokyo in 1952, Sakamoto formed the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) with his bandmates in 1978. The composer received a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for Best Score for a Film for “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” released in 1983.

He became the first Japanese winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Score for “The Last Emperor” in 1988. Sakamoto moved his base to New York in 1990. In 2014, he went public when he was diagnosed with oropharynx cancer.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

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There may be a time in your life when you are faced with a series of difficulties.

I never thought I’d face cancer, believing that I had a one-in-10,000 chance to develop it. When I was younger, I was fine even after pulling many all-nighters in a row and I even boasted that “talent boils down to physical strength,” and paid attention to my health after I turned 40 so much so that I could say I was a health freak.

In June 2014, when I was 62 years old, I felt something was wrong in my throat and saw a doctor, who diagnosed me as having oropharynx cancer. It was between stages II and III. I felt like, “No way.” I became conscious of death for the first time in my life. The word “cancer” was too much to handle.

To begin with, modern medicine has developed in the past 100 years or so, hasn’t it? In an earlier time, I might have been dead just like that. That may be a natural way to live, but I thought I wanted to live. I looked into every option and decided to put my life into the hands of the standard of care, whose statistically based survival rate has become evident.

I thought about many things, like, “Should I delay my treatment for my work?” and “No, I can work while I receive treatment.”

But my primary doctor advised me, “You can’t work unless you are alive,” and it calmed me down. I decided to rest indefinitely until a full recovery and went public about my cancer.

And my treatment began. During my seven weeks of radiation therapy, I was struck with pain running from the mouth to the throat like the whole area was afflicted with a canker sore. Every time I swallowed saliva, ate and drank, I shed tears because it was painful. The pain grew worse with each passing day, and I couldn’t take it anymore when I made it to the halfway point of my treatment. I cried hard and begged my primary doctor to let me stop it.

There was no music in my life while I was in treatment. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to or make it. It was the second time in my life to experience something like that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. I couldn’t work up the energy even to read books, and I just watched movies day after day.

I read books and searched online indiscriminately to study this cancer that was afflicting me. There is an infinite number of causes to turn healthy cells into cancer cells, such as chemical substances taken into the body on a daily basis, stresses, simple mistakes in copying DNA and radiation exposure. And the immune system prevents the occurrence of cancer every day. But cancer cells are so annoying to deal with because they are artful enough to play tricks on the immune system. It is as if they are sentient.

After all, there is an infinite number of causes. The longer the period you experience these various causes, the higher the probability that you could develop cancer. In other words, the ultimate cause of cancer is “being alive.” Even though this cancer disappears, I might develop another cancer. It took me one year to come to think that I must accept the inevitable.


About seven months after I started treatment, I received a request from Mexican director Alejandro G. Inarritu, who won an Academy Award, to write scores for a film (2015’s “The Revenant”). It was a request from the director I admire, but I was worried, thinking that I might have a recurrence if I took the offer for a big-budget project when I wasn’t mentally and physically fit for the job.

And I would have to be working concurrently on music production for director Yoji Yamada’s “Nagasaki: Memories of My Son” (2015), which I promised to do before I was diagnosed with cancer. I never worked on two feature films at the same time even when I was younger and energetic.

But it was a once-in-a-lifetime honor. I think my family had figured out about my dilemma and told me that I should do it even if it could kill me. I was encouraged by the words and accepted the offer.

I went ahead, but it was really hard. I used to make music for 12 to 16 hours a day and didn’t turn a hair before I got sick, but after treatment, I couldn’t work any longer than eight hours no matter how hard I tried. I increasingly fell behind my work. I was mentally cornered and sent an SOS to my friend for the first time in my life. I got through the situation thanks to the friend who flew to Los Angeles from Germany to help me work on the project. As it turned out, the fact that I could make it through the production while I got help seemed to have accelerated my recovery, so I feel fortunate about it.


In 2012, before I found out about my illness, I came across a piano in an agricultural senior high school in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, which was left untuned after it was damaged by the tsunami waves. I incorporated the piano’s sound into my first album in eight years that came out two years ago, “async,” to create a song called “Zure.”

After the illness, I felt the sound of this “Tsunami Piano” to have become more comforting. People say the sound of an untuned piano is “dissonant,” but to me, the instrument has just gone back to its original state, to what it is supposed to be. It’s not even dissonant, it’s natural.

Humans are stupid because only our consciousness, or our brain, has become excessively enlarged. I’d say we only have control over 5 or so percent of anything.

The rest is left in the hands of the life system passed down by DNA, so to speak. The idea that only your consciousness can make decisions for your life is nothing but an illusion. A society that operates on such an illusion is fragile.

Humanity has built civilizations and think we are wonderful. But nature has taught us, with the March 11, 2011, disaster, that civilizations can be easily destroyed by a tremor that is just a little sneeze from nature’s perspective. The enormity of nature. We are only allowed to live on its palms. I never want to forget the lesson.

I’ve been thinking about these ideas for a long time, but I became keenly aware, after I got cancer and went through the abnormal changes that happened inside my body, that my life is part of nature. I started seeing, in a factual manner, that humans and animals are all walking toward death from the moment they are born, and that it is a law of nature that is only natural and to which we can do nothing about.

I have become aware of how much time I have left after going through cancer. All I can do is make music. There is no use making music anyone with skills can make, so I want to make music that I can relate to. I stopped thinking about things like how many CDs I could sell.

Four years after treatment, the music that I want to make changes on a daily basis. What I want to make now is “music freed from the constraints of time.” Music, work and life all have a beginning and an ending. I intend to make music freed from those. I’m fancying many things because there are no models to follow. I guess it is similar to how I long for “eternity.”


When I went public about my cancer, many people told me they also had cancer. I myself have never experienced discrimination or prejudice for having cancer, but I realized there were more people who kept their cancer secret than I expected.

Are you strong and venerable because you are healthy? Do people fall sick because they are weak and less valuable? I can only say such prejudice and discrimination are nothing but ignorance. And they must be crushed. We just live on our immune systems. Being healthy has nothing to do with being great as a person.

I’m surprised to find myself feeling close to those who experienced cancer like they are my family members or relatives. When I learn that people close to me are stricken with cancer, I send them books to read. I can’t leave them alone because it’s no longer someone else’s affair.

Cancer is a difficult illness to treat. But let’s face it together.

(This article is based on an interview by Misako Yamauchi.)

(Fearless Ryuichi Sakamoto won’t stay silent on Okinawa base)