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The Ballad of John & 'Yono'


28 years after he was gunned down outside his New York apartment block, John Lennon is still with us. Here in Japan, he is with us even more. Since October 9, 2000, his life and work has been commemorated at the John Lennon Museum in Saitama. But the fact that a singer-songwriter, born and raised in Liverpool, who lived and worked in Hamburg, London, and New York, should be principally commemorated in a nondescript suburb of Tokyo remains baffling. Perhaps the answer is that the museum's location represents just one more victory by his widow, Yoko Ono, in the battle to control his legacy, with all its power, symbolism, and wealth.

When the museum opened on the 60th anniversary of Lennon's birth, Lennon's legacy was very much in the news, owing to the first parole hearing of his assassin, Mark Chapman six days earlier. Chapman's release after 20 years in jail would have overshadowed the opening of the museum designed to set Yoko's seal on the Lennon legacy, as well as giving the media a new and much juicier focus point from which to view the legacy. It would also have allowed an exploration of the forgiveness and redemption implicit in Lennon’s Christ-like message of universal love.

But, with the threat of losing control in this way, it was no surprise that Ono moved Heaven and Earth to have Chapman's parole refused.
"It was so cruel. So unjust," she wrote in an onion-scented letter to the New York state parole board. "My husband did not deserve this. He was in no way ready to die. He was feeling good with the prospect of doing a concert tour after making the album which became his last."

The court promptly rejected the parole application, as they have all subsequent ones, and instead of a media circus focused on Lennon’s killer, we had the opening of the new museum, with the only real angle of interest being the site's odd location.

"I had offers from various countries to make a museum in the past," Ono explained in an interview in Japanese at the time. "But I kind of felt I couldn't trust those people. Then I had this offer from people in Japan. But I was worried that I was going to be blamed, so making this museum in Japan was a kind of gamble. As you know, John used to love Japan very much. Where is he now? He's in the universe somewhere – a little point – so, from where he is, America, England, Japan or France won't be any different from where he is in the Universe."

The need to bring East and West together also got a mention.
"John used to love Japan very much and he was always hoping for harmony between the East and the West," Ono opined. "Because we had a son who is 'half,' we felt we were the bridge between East and West, so I thought his museum could be made in Japan from his dream of a borderless world."

Although this partially explains the choice of Japan, the Saitama location remains problematic. A PR person for the museum admitted that John had no connection at all with Saitama and instead cited practical reasons, like the convenience of being part of the new Saitama Shintoshin property development, and access to a large population area.

If a site with actual connections with Lennon was to be selected, the best candidate in Japan would have been Karuizawa in Nagano. It was here, often staying at the famous Mampei hotel, that Lennon and his family spent most of their time during annual visits to Japan between 1976 and 1980. In 1977, they stayed five months, during which time John seems to have taken things easy. According to Robert Rosen, a journalist who had access to Lennon's diaries in 1981 and wrote "Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon," the ex-Beatle spent much of his time lying around and writing.

"When he was off on those extended stays in Japan, just hanging out in his hotel room, not doing anything, he’d just be writing and writing," Rosen said in a 2001 interview. "In 1977 or 1978, he really got into programming his dreams. He would write down in excruciating detail every little thing about his dreams. There were times when he wrote more about his dreams than his waking life."

Even this location, the only site in Japan with any solid connection to the man, represents a low ebb in his creativity and political impact. Nevertheless, a museum here amid leafy glades that John himself experienced would have had some sense of place, unlike its present position, jammed into a massive sports arena about 50 minutes from central Tokyo.

Costing 1,500 yen to enter, the museum features staff dressed like elevator girls and 130 items from Lennon’s life, including old guitars, handwritten lyrics, John's Japanese JCB credit card, and several pairs of spectacles. The most interesting exhibit, however, is the slanted view of Lennon's legacy that it presents. Although married twice, only John's second wife ever appears. The brief period of sanity that John experienced in 1973, when he broke away from his mother fixation on Ono and started to behave like a proper rock star again, is trivialized as the 'Lost Weekend' and attributed to John 'cracking up.' Worse than this, almost every song lyric is construed to refer to Yoko in some way, including the words of songs written before he even met her, like Julia!

There are also some serious omissions. For example, no samples of Cup Noodle or Dydo Coffee can be found, two products with which the name of John Lennon is now intimately connected thanks to the business acumen of his widow.

Near the end of the exhibition, you enter the 'Quote Temple' with screens running karaoke subtitles to the songs being played, and various quotes from Lennon's career on a giant white block and glass wall. Unfortunately instead of the incisive gems of Scouse wit for which Lennon was famous, these are mainly sappy, Yoko-centric ditties like, "East is east and west is west/ The twain shall meet/ East is west and west is east/ Let it be complete."

The final stop is the museum shop where you can buy a notebook for 700 yen, a T-shirt for 3,200 yen, and a framed lithograph of his lyrics for 38,000 yen. On every piece of merchandising are the words "John Lennon is a trademark of Yoko Ono Lennon," just so we don’t forget who the owner is. But, as John so prophetically said, "Possession isn't nine-tenths of the law, its nine-tenths of the problem." It definitely is in this case.

So, why was this site in the middle of nowhere, a million figurative miles from Liverpool, chosen? It can’t just be the fact that it's close to Tokyo and inside a nice, big, shiny modern building. There must be some other factor at work. A look at the history of the site reveals that it was formerly part of the massive Omiya Railyard which was inside the boundaries of Yono City, one of three cities – with Omiya and Urawa – that were merged to create Saitama City in 2001. It's hard to ignore the resemblance between 'Yono' and the initial plus surname of the chief shareholder in this multi-million dollar legacy – 'Y. Ono.' Coincidence or simply instant karma?

Kansai Time Out
October, 2008

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