All Beatles fans – and the world at large- know that Yoko Ono is Japanese, but the majority may not know her family’s background. A previous post on this blog, “Linda McCartney vs. Yoko Ono: Rivalry and Comparisons” mentioned the irony that while Yoko and Linda may have had a healthy rivalry, they were similar in so many ways: both came from wealthy families who lived in the posh NYC suburb of Scarsdale, NY; both attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY but both left to pursue their artistic interests prior to earning a degree; both came from wealthy families with a father who was a high-achiever and with a mother who hailed from “old money”. That blog post about Linda McCartney and Yoko Ono gave a glimpse into Yoko’s largely unknown world in Japan.
Born in Tokyo in 1933, Yoko Ono was born into a family that had been well-known throughout Japan for generations. Yoko’s mother was a Yasuda, a family name associated with the powerful zaibatsu, financial, commercial, and industrial worlds that fueled Japan’s business empire. Her great-grandfather was Zenjiro Yasuda, the founder of the Bank of Tokyo.
Yoko’s maternal grandfather was Zensaburo Iomi who married the daughter of Zenjiro Yasuda. Zenjiro Yasuda, the founder of the Bank of Tokyo, was by far the wealthiest businessman in Japan. Upon marrying into the family, Zensaburo Iomi was appointed chairman of the family bank and elected to the House of Peers. Some years later, as was not unheard of in the circle of the wealthy Japanese elite, Zenjiro Yasuda cut his daughter and son-in-law out of his will, which at the time was estimated to be the equivalent of one billion dollars, which was more money than the wealthiest person in the U.S. at the time had. Yasuda cut them out of the will immediately before he was assassinated by a radical leftist in 1921.
Zensaburo Iomi and his wife had to carry on with the stigma of the public knowing they had been cut out of a gigantic fortune. The couple’s eighth and final child, Isoko, grew up in extreme privilege with a mother who was a Yasuda.
Isoko married Eisuke Ono, who though not wealthy was from a long line of famous samurai warriors. The Ono family produced many famous academics, musicians and painters; in addition, Eisuke’s mother, Tsuruko, was considered Japan’s foremost pioneering feminist.
Eisuke Ono was a nationally ranked golfer and classically trained pianist who attempted to pursue a career as a concert pianist prior to choosing the more practical business route. A graduate of University of Tokyo, he spoke English and French fluently, which was a definite asset as he began his banking career with the prestigious Yokohama Specie Bank. He was posted to work in his first overseas assignment in the U.S. in 1933 to run the bank’s operation in San Francisco, which meant he did not see his daughter Yoko until after she was two years old. Ironically, Yoko’s uncle, Kese ,was the first Japanese ambassador to the United Nations.
Eisuke Ono’s career brought him back home to Tokyo in 1937, but then he moved his family back to New York in 1940 and then to Hanoi. The Ono family returned to Tokyo in 1943.
Yoko’s academic career in Tokyo began at the famous Gukushuin school in Tokyo. After returning from New York, she went to primary school at the highly prestigious Keimei Gukuen, an exclusive Christian primary school run by the famous Mitsui family. After the war, Yoko re-enrolled at the Gukushuin, after it re-opened. The school was near the Imperial Palace and one of Yoko’s classmates and close friends was Prince Akihito, who of course was the future emperor.
Yoko’s academics during high school at Gukushuin were impressive enough that she was offered acceptance into Gukushuin University’s philosophy department in 1951, becoming the first woman ever to enroll in the program. However, she only stayed two semesters before leaving to join her parents in Scarsdale, New York, as her father was named president of the Bank of Tokyo in the U.S. and worked in Manhattan’s financial district.
While living in Scarsdale with her parents, she attended Sarah Lawrence College. She left Sarah Lawrence in 1956 without a degree to both pursue her artistic interests and elope to marry famous composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, whom she would formally divorce in 1963 after a couple of years apart. In the age of YouTube, Toshi Ichiyanagi’s vast works are very well represented on the internet.
While most people may not be aware of Yoko Ono’s powerful family background in Japan, needless to say when she connected with and later married John Lennon, people in Japan were totally aware of her family background to say the least.