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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Living|Arts

His other life in Japan

"A complex, rewarding journey," from the Boston Globe

"Bravos from local musicians," from the Boston Globe

"On the record," from the Boston Globe

"Orchestrating family life in Japan," from the Boston Globe

By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff, 09/20/98

MATSUMOTO, Japan -- Yuji Takei remembers the exact date in 1964 when he was first awed by a 28-year-old Seiji Ozawa, and that impression has only deepened over the years.

Ozawa, the first Japanese to win international conducting prizes and lead major Western orchestras, was arguably already too famous and busy to direct a small-town ensemble. But Ozawa "is not someone who could turn down the request of [his] teacher," Takei said, so the young conductor flew from North America to lead an amateur orchestra in the Japanese town of Suwa.

Takei, who was a violinist there, says he was bowled over. "I was struck by Ozawa not only as a musician, but as a human being. "He gives 100 percent and expects 100 percent, and because he keeps demanding, people give more of themselves than they knew they had," said Takei, still reverent three decades later. "We didn't know a Japanese like this existed." It is hard to imagine any place where the exuberant, shaggy-haired maestro could be a more famous and familiar face than in his adopted hometown, where he celebrates 25 years as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra this season. But if such a place exists, it is Japan -- a place he left long ago, but never really abandoned.

This is a nation whose top orchestra sent a young Ozawa packing 35 years ago, rejecting him as brash and immature. Ozawa left humiliated and brokenhearted, thinking he would never return to make music here. But his career rocketed abroad and the acclaim for his skills grew so dramatically that even his erstwhile critics here eventually recognized him as one of the world's great conductors.

Today, it is hard to overestimate Ozawa's star appeal in Japan. He is widely known as a "national treasure," counting among his fans the emperor and empress of Japan, Nobel laureates, and chairmen of major corporations. He is hailed as a pioneer among postwar Japanese trying to achieve global recognition in a Western-dominated field. He is recognized by young and old.

But perhaps most striking, in a country famous for setting high standards for itself, Ozawa's lifestyle -- his reputed long hours, constant striving for excellence, dedication to community, and generosity to family, friends, and fans -- has become a role model for his public. Ozawa's persona in Japan has gone beyond "maestro" to "sensei" -- the Japanese term for a teacher or great man.

In the way that Michael Jordan is a uniquely American icon, the 63-year-old Ozawa represents everything that many Japanese want to be. He works tremendously hard, but without sacrificing fun in his life. He's internationally recognized, but seems to have remained humble and determined to give back to society.

In Japan, Ozawa is a phenomenon -- in part for his musical talent, says Matsumoto Mayor Tadashi Aruga, but even more "for his humanity, for the values he represents."

"A lot of people here come to his concerts who don't know much about music -- academics, politicians, company presidents," said Takei, a retired Epson executive who now coordinates the annual Saito Kinen music festival, named for Ozawa's teacher, Hideo Saito. Ozawa founded the festival in 1992 to bring world-class performances and teaching to his homeland. "People come and they get something, not only from the music, but they are inspired by the man himself to accomplish more in their own fields."

Japan as his activities here have multiplied -- teaching at his alma mater Toho School of Music in Tokyo, guest conducting at the New Japan Philharmonic, leading "caravans" that bring free, live music to remote areas, and conducting programs with amateurs and children.

"He's like a rock star here," said an incredulous Everett "Vic" Firth, BSO timpanist, and one of the few artists not of Japanese descent who is part of the Saito Kinen Orchestra. On the street here, children chase Ozawa for autographs or stop him to offer an apple or other small token.

But even before Ozawa became a frequent guest artist in Japan, he was legendary as a trailblazer who allowed other Japanese to follow in his path.

"After World War II, he was the first Japanese who went abroad and made it. We always tried to chase European or American culture, to imitate it, but Maestro Ozawa was the first to make it," said Chiyoshige Matsubara, managing director of the New Japan Philharmonic. "After him, it's much easier to come out and make it abroad. For the pioneer, it's always the most difficult." For Ozawa, that was oddly more true at home than abroad.

In 1963, after touring Japan as assistant conductor to Bernstein's New York Philharmonic, Ozawa was contracted for six months as music director of the NHK Symphony, Japan's most prestigious classical ensemble. It was a startling appointment for a 27-year-old, and one that ended miserably.

Critics at the time said Ozawa was too green for the job. He was accused of being late for rehearsals, and of not knowing the music. He reputedly once asked the concertmaster to signal him when the orchestra was to come in during a concerto, because he hadn't memorized the cadenza. At NHK, resentment against the young conductor simmered until players boycotted a performance, leaving Ozawa standing alone onstage, angry and humiliated.

Defenders say the real problem was the Japanese attitude toward noncomformists, and a generational clash between old and new values.

Yoshihisa Sasaki, a music critic who has followed Ozawa's career, said the young conductor's rise in the '60s coincided with the beginning of Japan's economic miracle and the end of its postwar humiliation. With his dark glasses, tight pants, and Beatles haircut, Ozawa "was hip and cool, not dark and brooding," Sasaki said. "He was the incarnation of the hopes of young Japanese. But Japanese organizations have a tendency to be mean to young people, and Ozawa fought back."

There is a Japanese saying that "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," and people often quote it when speaking of Ozawa's early reception here. His conducting style was loose and powerful, a far cry from the restrained style to which NHK was accustomed. He used informal and direct language when speaking. He didn't follow seniority within NHK's ranks and was criticized for bringing friends and his first wife, pianist Kyoko Edo, to rehearsals. He was resented for having leapfrogged over other conductors, and some players hazed him by missing notes and complaining if he didn't notice.

"That was the small-mindedness of Japanese -- they couldn't recognize someone who was very, very good, but came from nowhere. He was a hippie type, with long hair, and NHK was not used to a conductor like that," recalled Tadashi Hori, 63, a violinist at Saito Kinen and a friend of Ozawa's since they were in music school together as teenagers.

"The style of his performance was very unusual, perhaps unprecedented in Japan," said Moto Hirasa, Ozawa's manager here since 1976. "In Japanese organizations, there's always a hierarchy and elders have to be respected. When this young man came in and said, 'I don't care who's older or younger, but who has ability,' there was a lot of confusion."

"Maybe I was too young. They thought I was too American -- but I didn't even speak English then," Ozawa said with a laugh, while driving himself to a concert recently at Saito Kinen.

"It was sad, but I also made many friends," he said of the Japanese artistic giants who at the time signed a letter defending him. "I learned quickly how difficult the world is, how hard it is to come back to your country. If they had made me NHK director, it would have been comfortable: good money, a house. But in Japan, I don't think I would've grown as a conductor."

So Ozawa went West, and earned posts and increasing fame in Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, and, finally, Boston.

It was his talent and personality, but also his early difficulties here, that have drawn other Japanese innovators to him. His close friends include clothing designer Hanae Mori, the only Japanese woman to enter haute couture ranks in Paris; Nobel-winning author Kenzaburo Oe; late composer Toru Takemitsu; late writer Yukio Mishima; and Sony chairman Norio Ohga.

"There was a time when some Japanese audiences . . . did not appreciate, even notice, the talent of Japanese artists, only admiring foreign artists just because they were foreign," Ohga said. "Seiji completely changed that. The fact that US and European audiences appreciated his talent led the way for his followers to be recognized. The incident with NHK was a good awakening for him. Without it, he may have remained only an ordinary Japanese conductor."

Hirasa agreed. "Japanese Nobel winners, actors, baseball, and soccer players have all gone overseas. When we hear a Japanese has gone abroad and reaped approval, it's as if every Japanese shares in that success."

Indeed, Ozawa has called Boston home for a quarter-century, but Japanese still claim him as their own. For his part, Ozawa seems to have struggled little with identity, choosing instead to embrace both communities.

He never took American citizenship, but says "we" when he speaks of Americans. He spends 12 to 15 weeks a year working or vacationing in Japan, and for the last 20 years has kept a home and centered his personal life here, after he and his wife decided she would move back so their son and daughter could be educated and rooted in Japan.

Nevertheless, in the same way that some Japanese have criticized Sony Corp. for being too American, too much a cultural hybrid, some feel Ozawa has become too Westernized, too direct in his style and language -- supposedly addressing even the empress informally. But many, especially young Japanese, say that hybrid quality is an asset, a sign of casting aside outdated values that have hemmed in this society.

Ozawa says when he lands at Logan International Airport, he feels like he is home, and not just because he is an avid Red Sox and Patriots fan. "My house is there, my study, my life's work. I understand that Boston people feel I am their partner, and I also feel at home there. BSO and I are like family now. They're so accustomed to me; I'm like Papa. I love them. But I never lost my contact with Japan, because I am really Japanese -- and not just because I like Japanese food or drink," he chuckled.

Perhaps because Saito Kinen reunites him with Toho classmates, the festival is a unique window onto the Japanese side of Ozawa. It is also the place where the qualities for which he is revered in Japan -- professional perfectionism and personal warmth -- coexist most harmoniously. "

Ikuko Mizuno, a violinist with the BSO and Saito Kinen and Toho alum, said, "Everyone thinks I'm crazy to use my vacation to work with the same conductor. But here he is testing us to see what we want. He's experimenting. That's why this is heaven for him -- he can work to perfection."

The relaxed give-and-take is not Ozawa's only modus operandi, however. In Boston, he is the boss, setting the tempo, rather than asking players what they think. In a piercing moment captured in a 1985 Maysles brothers documentary shown on PBS two years later, Ozawa tries to help a struggling young Japanese student at Tanglewood, but tells the young man to ask himself if he has the "resolve needed" to be a conductor.

"I've suffered a lot," he tells the young man. "In Japan, they think I'm just being arrogant. You've got to be strong . . . you've got to be able to ride out a wave."

That was 13 years ago, and Ozawa has ridden the wave. Today, his perfectionism is part of what makes him so popular among Japanese fans.

They are people like Kazumasa Miyagi, 36, a Tokyo public school clerk who uses his vacation every September to attend the festival. Miyagi, who was waiting outside Ozawa's dressing room for his umpteenth autograph, also loves Ozawa for his "friendliness and approachability. Ozawa-san really walks with us on the same level. He treasures his fans."

In a country where sentimentality in men has long been frowned upon, people love the way Ozawa breaks tradition by showing his sensitive side. Kei Mori, son of designer and longtime Ozawa friend Hanae Mori, recall that when his father died, Ozawa came to the funeral straight from Narita Airport, crying while he clutched his luggage.

Having passed 60 and surpassed the tenure of any current orchestra leader in America, Ozawa seems to have decided the most important contribution he can make is to develop classical music teaching and culture, especially in Japan. "It would be a big mistake if I didn't teach, because Mr. Saito was so important to me. I can't be like Saito, but we should do something, leave something after we die, like lime in the ground."

Part of that has been the caravans he initiated with Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. The two have taken music students and driven through the Japanese countryside, stopping in three towns a day to play free music on street corners or in temples, taking meals with the locals.

Music critic Sasaki said Ozawa's appeal may also lie beyond himself, in a desire by Japanese to find something exemplary in their culture amid recent financial and political turmoil.

"Japan has based its postwar reputation on its economic sucess, but that success is now in decline," Sasaki said. "So when you wonder what does modern Japan have left, Seiji Ozawa is the epitome of what Japan has to be proud of."

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