Born in Tokyo, Takemitsu first became interested in western classical music around the time of World War II. He heard western music on American military radio while he recuperated in bed from a long illness.
Takemitsu was largely self-taught in music. He was greatly influenced by the music of Claude Debussy. In 1951 he founded the Jikken Kobo, a group which introduced many contemporary western composers to Japanese audiences.
Takemitsu was at first uninterested in traditional Japanese music, but later incorporated Japanese instruments such as the shakuhachi (a kind of bamboo flute) into the orchestra. November Steps (1967), a concerto for shakuhachi and biwa (a kind of Japanese lute) was the first piece to combine instruments from east and west. In an Autumn Garden (1973-79) is written for the kind of orchestra that would have played gagaku (traditional Japanese court music).
Takemitsu first came to wide attention when his Requiem for string orchestra (1957) was heard and praised by Igor Stravinsky in 1959. Stravinsky went on to champion Takemitsu's work.
Takemitsu's works include the orchestral piece A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden (1977), riverrun for piano and orchestra (1984, the title is the first word in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake), and the string quartet A way a Lone (1981, another piece inspired by Finnegans Wake). He also composed electronic music and almost a hundred film scores for Japanese films including those for Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964), Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985) and Shohei Imamura's Black Rain (1989).