The Observer
John Lennon was shot 28 years ago this month, but his widow, now 75,
travels the world preaching peace and love in his name – and in her art.
Here she tells Miranda Sawyer about begging for food as a child in
wartime Japan, her two husbands before John, and the daughter who was
hidden from her for more than 20 years

by Miranda Sawyer, The Observer, Sunday 21 December 2008

Yoko Ono Observer
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Notoriously, John Lennon once described Yoko Ono as “the world’s most
famous unknown artist: everyone knows her name, but no one knows what
she actually does”. This is still true today. How do you think Yoko
spends her time? Lying in bed for peace? Yowling in recording studios?
Rubbing her hands as she counts her millions?

Well, on 9 October, Yoko was in Reykjavik, Iceland. She had a packed
agenda. First, she was presenting the LennonOno Grant for Peace. This
year, its $100,000 was split between Iceland, for its work on geothermal
energy, and Dr Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist. Second, Yoko
was switching on her Imagine Peace Tower at Reykjavik harbour, which
sends a laser beam shining into the air between 9 October (Lennon’s
birthday) and 8 December (the date of his death). Third, she was the VIP
guest at the launch of an Icelandic postage stamp in honour of Lennon.

Though I couldn’t get my head around this strange collection of
occasions – I kept asking the PR: “Yes, but why Iceland?’ – they seemed
representative of Yoko’s work, which moves fluidly between peace, art
and her late husband’s memory (not so much music these days; she says
she doesn’t have the time). So a trip was arranged and we all convened
in Reykjavik. Then, overnight, Iceland went bust.

Suddenly, Yoko’s events seemed irrelevant, if not insulting – a foreign
artist donating thousands of dollars for peace when the economy of the
entire country has just disappeared. For a start, how could Iceland cash
the cheque? In the end, Yoko, a tiny figure dressed entirely in black,
including cap and sunglasses, made a well-received, if hippy-flavoured,
speech: “We are here today to celebrate the unveiling of the true human
spirit, which we have been hiding for such a time of need.”

She then sat gamely through interviews with earnest local journalists
asking whether Iceland had a special place in John’s heart: “Well, he
didn’t make it here when he was living but now he is coming here in a
different way, he is here in spirit. He doesn’t go everywhere, you

In the evening, there was a ceremony for the lighting of Yoko’s Imagine
Peace Tower. A memorial to Lennon, it has “Imagine Peace” in various
languages engraved around the base and was lit for the first time in
2007 when Yoko and others, including Ringo Starr and Olivia Harrison,
all stood around the light as it illuminated. I’ve seen a DVD; it looked
amazing, if cold. “Could you put it up in the Caribbean next time?”
jokes Ringo.

This year, a storm prevented anyone getting to the island where the
light is sited, so Yoko’s entourage and Icelandic dignitaries gathered
in the top-floor bar of our hotel to witness the Peace Tower lighting.
The event lacked a certain drama. Instead of huddling beneath the
elements, sea crashing on the rocks below, we stood around, ate nibbles
and drank wine. There was a three-two-one moment and Yoko pressed a
button. Nothing. Yoko said: “Why isn’t it working?” And then a column of
light began to shine into the dark sky.

Sean Lennon, Yoko’s son, was there with his girlfriend. His birthday is
9 October, same as his dad, so every year his celebrations are
overshadowed. Peering through the window, Sean said: “Mom, it’s
beautiful, fantastic. Really amazing.” Some of Yoko’s team had tears in
their eyes. Not me. I squinted at the pale, distant light and thought:
what is all the fuss about?

Well, indeed. It’s amazing how much controversy Yoko causes, when her
presence is so low key. As I watch her in Iceland, and later in London,
I’m struck by her lack of look-at-me ego and her concern for the
feelings of those around her. She’s almost motherly, though this is
combined with a cool solo exterior. When she speaks, still with a strong
Japanese accent, she begins every sentence with a little “hmm”, a short
thinking breath.

The fuss about Yoko, of course, lies in her last marriage (it’s often
forgotten that Lennon was her third husband.) She will never be forgiven
for marrying the best Beatle and then not disappearing demurely into the
background. Although, in a way, she did. In public appearances with
Lennon, Yoko was ever-present but, somehow, not there; whispering
opinions into his ear, rarely speaking out loud, shaping his work while
appearing to contribute very little.

Think of the Imagine video. Yoko sits there, impassive, as Lennon plays
and sings one of the most cherished songs ever written. At the end, she
offers nothing more than a besotted smile. Even now, 28 years after his
death, there’s still fuss, at the moment caused by Philip Norman’s
excellent Lennon biography. Yoko agreed to be interviewed for it but has
rejected the finished article. No one is quite sure why. When I ask her
about the book, she responds with a firm: “No comment.”

We meet again in her vast suite at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. By
this time, I’ve been to Iceland, also to Liverpool to see the art she’s
showing at the Biennial, and to London, to her keynote speech at Frieze
Art Fair. Yoko is happy about this: “You’ve seen everything, you were
there!” she exclaims. She is wearing a zip-up top with BERLIN on the
front, black trousers and bluey-green spectacles disguised as shades. It
seems impossible that she’s 75; she looks 20 years younger. We perch on
the vast, flowered sofa and go through the catalogue for her new show at
the Baltic Centre in Newcastle. It’s a retrospective, showcasing her art
from as far back as the 60s, when Yoko was considered a semi-detached
part of the wildly avant-garde Fluxus group (there’s a Fluxus exhibition
on another floor).

I’m a fan of much of her art, particularly the bossy, conceptual stuff
where she commands the viewer to perform, or imagine performing, an
impossible action. Such as: “Stay in a room for a month. Do not speak.
Do not see. Whisper at the end of the month.”

First things first, though. It’s been bugging me. Why Iceland? What has
that got to do with John? Why have a memorial there, as opposed to
Liverpool or New York? “To me, the concept of distance is not
important,” says Yoko. “Distance doesn’t exist, in fact, and neither
does time. Vibrations from love or music can be felt everywhere, at all
times. A memorial to John can just as well exist in Iceland as in New
York. And the LennonOno Grant for Peace is designed to be public. It’s
important for the world to know about geothermal energy. I give money to
other causes, but, for instance, with a refuge for battered women, if
you give the money, it’s better not to have publicity because then
people think, oh, Yoko’s paying – they don’t need support. But with
this, it’s important for these people to be acknowledged.”

We talk about two pieces of her work that appear to be her current
favourites. One is Wish Tree, a project that has been going since the
1990s in various exhibition venues: you take a paper tag, write a wish
on it and hang it off the branches of a bush (provided). And the other
is OnoChord, where Yoko hands out torches to an audience and encourages
everyone to flash them at each other once, then twice, then three times.
This is Yoko semaphore for I Love You. I don’t like either work much;
they seem trite, babyish.

When Yoko appeared at Frieze, everyone was waiting for her old, radical
performance pieces, such as Cut, where members of the crowd scissor away
her clothes until she is naked. She performed one – about political
prisoners – and then played a video which showed the Imagine Peace
Tower, Wish Tree and crowds merrily flashing “I love you” at each other.
It was too sentimental for the audience, who didn’t join in.

“At Frieze they expected some cool art,” says Yoko. “They were a cool
crowd. But I thought: why not edit it all down into two essential parts?
Love and peace. Afterwards, I was wondering if I was right. But only art
and music have the power to bring peace.”

Hang on. Even if every person in the audience at Frieze says “I love
you” to each other, or “Imagine peace”, why will that make any
difference? They’re not the ones who start wars. “If everybody thinks of
something, then it will happen. Your mind is part of the universe. It is
connected, you can use its energy. And politicians want people to like
them, it’s important to them. They think: why don’t they like me? They
will act if their people tell them to.”

Perhaps I’m just a cynical hack, but I’m not sure that flashing I Love
You at Robert Mugabe would get you very far if you were wearing an MDC
T-shirt. However, it becomes easier to understand Yoko’s obsession with
love and peace when you look at the conflict in her younger life. Born
on 18 February 1933 in Tokyo, she was the eldest child from the union of
two important Japanese families. Isoko, her mother, was a Yasuda,
founders of a merchant bank. The Onos were highly educated aristocrats
who married into business, eventually running the Bank of Tokyo. Both
Yoko’s mother and father Yeisuke were excited by the arts and Yoko was
trained in lieder singing, Italian opera and classical piano. “But it
was complicated; my father wanted me to learn music but also not to
learn it. His mind was conflicted – he didn’t want me to rebel.”

Because of her father’s work, the family moved between Japan and the US,
settling back in Tokyo in 1941 when he was transferred to Hanoi in
Vietnam. During the Second World War, he was sent to a concentration
camp in Saigon; the rest of the family stayed in Tokyo until the
fire-bombing of 9 March 1945. Afterwards, Isoko moved the children to
the countryside. Yoko remembers this as a difficult time, when she had
to grow up. Her mother – “not like a typical housewife, she was quick
with her words, sarcastic” – had bought them a small house, but did not
come with her children. Instead, she sent the only family servant not
called up to work in the factories, an older woman, both physically and
mentally handicapped.

The 12-year-old Yoko was forced to take control. She had to beg for
food. “I had a big responsibility, to look after my brother and sister
and also the help, to make sure they could eat. The country people did
not like city people. They said: you think you are above us and called
me bata kusai, which means ‘smelling like butter’. Like I was an

After the war, Yoko finished school and was the first female student
accepted on the philosophy course at Gakushuin University. Her family
ended up in New York where Yoko studied poetry and composition,
eventually rebelling against her parents to become part of a loose salon
of local creatives, including John Cage. She married composer Toshi
Ichiyanagi in 1956. “He was orthodox, conservative. We were very good
friends but very different.” She’s still on civil terms with Toshi – he
and Sean recently met in New York – but after their relationship ended,
Yoko checked herself into a sanatorium, “like a Betty Ford”.

She and Toshi had moved from New York back to Japan, where he encouraged
Yoko to do a concert. It got mixed reactions – “not seen as right for a
woman” – and Yoko became depressed. While she was in the clinic, Tony
Cox, an American jazz musician and art promoter, kept sending her
flowers – “my room was full”. When Yoko emerged, she ran off with him
back to the US. They married and had a daughter, Kyoko, whom Cox mostly
cared for while Yoko made art.

In 1966, she had a show at Indica Gallery in London. John Lennon turned
up, though Yoko didn’t know who he was: “The worlds of art and pop music
were not like now, they did not mix. I had just made Film No 4 [one of
her most notorious: it’s usually called Bottoms, as it consists of lots
of them], it was a success and the avant-garde group rejected me. They
said I was a sell-out. So I had success but I was lonely. I knew about
the Beatles, but the only name I knew was Ringo, because it means apple
in Japanese. When John came, he didn’t look like a rocker or an artist.
He was a normal man in a suit, clean-cut. I used to call him clean-cut.
He didn’t like it.”

The entwining of John and Yoko was traumatic: Lennon was still married,
as was Yoko. “We were together as individual artists,” she says, “but as
human beings it could not be like that [she clasps her hands], because
we both had families. It was not easy to come together.”

They finally managed it, marrying in 1969. Two years later, Tony Cox,
frustrated at his ex-wife being awarded sole custody of Kyoko, kidnapped
his eight-year-old daughter when on an access visit. For an unbelievable
number of years, he hid with her, initially in the confines of a US Christian
cult group. Yoko didn’t see Kyoko again until her daughter was 31.

I can’t imagine how awful that must have been, I say. “Yes,” replies
Yoko, evenly, “it was so terrible. I kept imagining I was talking to
her, but I couldn’t speak to her. I didn’t know where she was. And for a
long time, it affected my attitude to having another child.”

You didn’t want one?

“No, I definitely did but it was more that I thought I should never get
too close to Sean in case John and I should split up. Sometimes the
father feels pushed out because of the connection between the mother and
the child. So I made sure that I was the artist and John stayed at home
and was close to Sean. I thought I was being so intelligent! I was doing
the business and John was happy at home with Sean. We were close, not
just as lovers, but as mommy and daddy you know? We were a family.”

And then?

“You just don’t think it could happen. Well you know it can happen but
you just don’t imagine…”

After Lennon’s death, Yoko wanted to “clasp Sean close but I could not”.
She was worried that she too would be assassinated. “Although I wanted
to put my arms around my son and keep everything away, I couldn’t. I had
to make sure he could survive without me.”

Such cool-headedness! Yoko isn’t cold by any means, but she’s learnt to
suppress her emotions and think long term. When I ask about May Pang,
Lennon’s mistress during his infamous “lost weekend”, she says she
didn’t want the Ono-Lennon marriage to be “so suburban, you know? We
were artists – why we were so conventional? We don’t have to be this
way”. So Yoko pushed her husband into a fling with Pang, their
assistant, a fling that nearly ended their marriage. Yoko doesn’t talk
about this in detail, however, “because May Pang has her own story and I
don’t want to deny that”.

That’s very gracious.

“It is not gracious,” says Yoko. She wants me to understand. “When I
explained to you the situation with May Pang and with Sean, both times I
made the decision in my head: OK, this is the correct path to follow.
Then I have to see what happens, go on the journey, deal with the
emotions that come out of that decision.”

What a complicated woman Yoko Ono is. Intellectual and emotional,
avant-garde but deliberately simplistic, making hard-headed choices for
heartfelt reasons. Talking to her makes me view her OnoChord and Wish
Tree more indulgently. Perhaps if I was 75, having lived through all
Yoko has lived through, I would want my work to be reduced to the simple
desire that we be kind to each other.

I’ve often wondered about Yoko’s love-life, post-Lennon. When I ask her,
she tells me she has had relationships, but now she doesn’t feel the
need. Partly because it’s difficult if you’re famous – “look at Paul and
Heather” – and partly because of her beliefs about the irrelevance of
distance and time.

“Sometimes,” she says, “John’s death is like a dream, like it never
happened. And sometimes it is right here. Before it happened, I had a
feeling about myself like I was the artist alone, working, but after
John went, I had to look at myself and say: you have changed. Your life
has changed, this is who you are now. You will always be seen as with
him. And when I did that I felt differently.

“Now I feel like the whole big thing of John is like an umbrella around
me, protecting me. I still have emotions and an emotional life. I have
decided to love all the people who miss John. A dream you dream alone is
only a dream. A dream you dream together is a reality.”

• Yoko Ono’s Beneath the Sky and My Head is at the Baltic Centre in
Gateshead until 15 March

Observer 22 Dec 2008