Yoko Ono was born into power and wealth at 8:30 AM Tokyo time..on a snowy
February 18, 1933 to her parents, Eisuke Ono and Isoko Yasuda Ono. Yoko was
born at her great-grandmother's palatial estate overlooking Tokyo, with the
emperor's compound located nearby. A staff of thirty servants attended to the family's
Yoko's paternal great-grandfather, Atsushi Saisho, was the
descendant of a 9th Century emperor and a member of a powerful family which
played a role in overthrowing the shogunate system in Japan.
Atsushi Saisho had no sons, but was devoted to his daughter, Tsuruko, who he
sent to a Protestant college in Kobe to study English and music. She converted to Christianity,
met Eijiro Ono, who
was on the faculty of a Christian college in Kyoto and the couple eventually married.
Eijiro had descended from a poor family of samarai warriors, but in order to
survive, he had to give up the samurai's disdain of trade and go into business. He studied at the
University of Michigan in 1890, joined the Bank of Japan in 1896 and eventually became the
president of the Japan Industrial Bank. Yoko's father - Eisuke - was the third son of Tsuruko and Eijiro Ono.
Eisuke Ono earned two degrees from Tokyo University - one in economics, the other in mathematics.
But his true love was music. Eisuke aspired to be a pianist and studied under an older brother's Russian-born wife,
Anna, who was an accomplished violinist and pianist.
Eisuke learned his lessons well and became a favorite performer at Karuizawa - a popular Japanese resort
for the social elite. The tall, handsome Eisuke was considered a great catch for the unmarried ladies at the resort,
who came to listen to him play. It was at Karuizawa that Yoko's mother met and fell in love with
the talented Eisuke.
Yoko's mother came from a very wealthy family. Isoko's grandfather
was Zenjiro Yasuda, the founder of the Yasuda Bank and head of one of Japan's richest
business cartels. Zenjiro Yasuda had amassed a fortune of more than one-billion dollars before his
death by assassination in 1921. Mr. Yasuda was killed by a right-wing activist when he refused to
give a donation for a workers' hotel.
The pairing of the wealthy Isoko to the musician, Eisuke, was not held in high favor
with Isoko's family. In fact, the only way Isoko's family would allow the marriage was if
Eisuke would give up his plans for a musical career and join his in-laws in the banking field.
Following his marriage to the beautiful Isoko, Eisuke took a post with the Yokohama Specie Bank
and moved into the elegant estate of his wife's grandparents.
Yoko has often described her early life in Tokyo as a lonely time. Her mother gave
incredible parties for the upper class Tokyo elite, and while Yoko was well cared for,
her mother paid little personal attention to her daughter. Yoko would sit, hidden from view,
and watch as her mother entertained the fine ladies and gentlemen, dressed in glamorous Hollywood-style finery.
Yoko developed a warm relationship with the tutors and servants, as well as spending a great deal of time
alone, dreaming and inventing ways to entertain herself. She usually dined alone.
Yoko: "I had every meal by myself, alone. I was told the meal was ready and went into the
dining room, where there was a long table for me to eat at. My private tutor watched
me silently, sitting on the chair beside me."
From Bungei Shunju, 1974
Yoko's father did not see his first born until she was already walking, talking... and
tap dancing. 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 August of 1935.
Yoko: "The first time I visited America was when I was two-and-a-half years old,
and that was also the first time I met my father. I was sent to America to meet
him and live with him. My family was sort of upper class in those days, in the
'30s, and they were always taking these 16mm home movies. You know, Daddy and Yoko
walking in San Francisco. I later got to see all those films, and what I saw
was this sort of young guy who was not very happy about suddenly meeting his
daughter. But I'm really excited in those films, tap dancing around like
Shirley Temple. That was my first taste of America. I remember the Golden Gate Bridge,
it was beautiful."
From The Soho News - December 3, 1980
When Yoko was five, in the spring of 1937, 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. Mrs. Ono first sent her to
the same school she had attended, but decided it wasn't quite good enough for Yoko.
She then enrolled her in the Gakushuin (Peers' School) which was at the time only
open to those with relatives in the imperial family or the House of Peers.
In early 1940 Isoko, Yoko and Keisuke rejoined Eisuke in the United States. Eisuke
had been transferred again - this time to the bank's Manhattan office.
Yoko attended public school near Long Island until it was time to set sail for Japan again
as war was about to break out between Japan and the United States. Eisuke left the
States several weeks later, transferred this time to the Hanoi office.
Yoko's second sibling - a sister, Setsuko - was born just two months before the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941.
Yoko, her brother and sister were shielded from the horrors of the war in
progress by their mother for as long as possible. But after an all-night
air raid on March 9, 1945 which killed 83,000 citizens of Tokyo, Isoko decided
it was time to leave the ravaged city for what had been promised by a friend
as a more calm and hospitable countryside.
Isoko sent Yoko, Keisuke and Setsuko, ages 12, 8 and 3, along with the last
remaining Ono servant to a small farming village south of Karuizawa.
The villagers did not welcome the obviously wealthy and well-fed Onos
with open arms.
Mrs. Ono arrived several days later to find the so-called
hospitable country people openly resentful and eager to take any and all
valuables in exchange for scraps of food. The family was in the country long enough
for the children to attend school there, and to go hungry as well. Yoko said later that she
was always hungry, and the family was often reduced to begging for food door to door.
There was more than hunger to deal with for Yoko, Keisuke and Setsuko, though.
The farm children teased the city-bred Onos so badly that Yoko's brother finally
dropped out of school. Yoko, on the other hand, stood her ground and wasn't afraid
to give them a piece of her mind.
The Onos' stay in the country, which had lasted several months, ended after the Japanese
surrendered on August 15, 1945. When the family returned to Tokyo, they discovered
much of the city destroyed by the bombing and Japanese citizens, thin and
starving, lined up awaiting food handouts.
Yoko's father, who hadn't been heard from by the family in a year, happily, turned out to
be alive and well. In fact, he'd had the good fortune of being promoted to a high-ranking position
at the bank in Hanoi. However, that good fortune made him a target of the post-War purging of
powerful Japanese businessmen and industrialists from their positions. These men were blamed in part
for helping to create and fund Japan's war machine. Mr. Ono rode out this storm while the political maneuvering
went on, and when it was clear that the country needed the talents of these well-educated people, Mr. Ono
was able to take a position at the newly formed Bank of Tokyo in 1947.
In the meantime..Yoko was back in Gakushuin, the Peers' School, attending classes with
Emperor Hirohito's two sons - Akihito, the crown prince who was in the same class as Yoko -
and his younger brother, Yoshi, who had a thing for Yoko.