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Orchestrating family life in Japan
MATSUMOTO, Japan -- Seiji Ozawa has long called Boston home, but he admits his heart has been divided, sharing time across the Pacific with his wife and their two children, who moved back to Tokyo two decades ago.
His only regret about the last 25 years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he says, is that he could not be with his children every day to watch them grow. During an interview at the recent Saito Kinen festival here, he says he and his wife, Vera, decided Seira and Yukiyoshi should be raised in Japan "so they could learn about their roots, and after that, do what they want."
Ozawa describes the decision as grueling, one that was debated over the kitchen table for half a year. He believes it was best for his children, though it meant being separated from Vera and missing many moments with his family.
In Japan, such arrangements are not unusual; wives of men who are posted overseas or outside Tokyo often remain behind to raise the children. But for Ozawa, who grew up in a tightknit family, the separation was very difficult.
Today, his daughter, Seira, 26, a graduate of Tokyo's Sophia University, is assisting stage director Colin Graham on the upcoming world-premiere production of Andre Previn's opera "A Streetcar Named Desire" in San Francisco. His son, Yukiyoshi, 24, just graduated from Seijo University in Tokyo. An aspiring actor and filmmaker, he recently appeared in a Japanese miniseries about samurai.
Despite the separation, by all accounts, the family is extremely close. Ozawa calls daily, a habit that began when the family was first separated and persists even though the children are adults. Still, Ozawa regrets not having been there to share the children's day-to-day experiences.
Ozawa's younger brother, Mikio, recalls a phone call years ago when maestro Herbert von Karajan fell ill before a performance and Ozawa was tapped suddenly to take his place. "All the press was calling me, so when Seiji called, I thought it was about that. But he didn't even mention it," says Mikio Ozawa, 60, a radio personality and music writer in Tokyo. Seira was going to be in an elementary school recital, and Ozawa was distressed at missing it.
"He begged me to take a video recorder to his daughter's school, because he wanted to see her so badly," Mikio remembers. "She was just one kid in a huge class; I had to chase them all around with the recorder to find her. But it meant so much to Seiji."
Seiji Ozawa remembers the time when their home in Tokyo was robbed while the family was out and he was in Boston. He told his son to take care of his mother and sister, admonishing him: "You are the only man in that house."
"My daughter said, 'That's not fair. He's only 10 and robbers are big men.' So we had a very heavy discussion about me not being there for them. They understood that I had to stay with the BSO -- I explained what I do. So they said, 'OK, we have the solution: You move back to Japan and bring the BSO with you.' Well, I laughed so hard," he says.
"Whenever I came back to Japan, almost every day I went to their school. Some students thought I was a teacher," he says with a laugh.
Still, he is pained to have missed special times, like school field days or birthdays. Ozawa recounts being shocked when his then-adolescent son casually mentioned that the family always celebrated Seira's birthday together, because it falls during winter break, but rarely his own, in early June.
"I was shocked. I didn't think he cared about me being at his birthday. But ever since then, I told my management not to schedule me for June 6, and I've been with him for almost every one. The funny thing is that now we give him a dinner and he comes for 10 minutes and then goes off with his friends," Ozawa says with a chuckle.
Vera Ilyan Ozawa, a children's clothing designer, does not give interviews, but her husband describes her as "very Russian, very strong." She was born of a Japanese mother and a Russian father, and was a successful model when she met Ozawa. "When she married me, she really had enough of six hours' sleep, running around, quick lunch. She didn't appear at events or even in photographs for a long time. She just wanted to be a wife and mother."
Ozawa's emotion about family is not surprising, given his upbringing. He was born in 1935 in Manchuria, but his family was forced to leave as World War II began. They had no TV or radio growing up, so Ozawa and his three brothers -- Katsumi, Toshio, and Mikio -- entertained the family by singing hymns.
His mother, Sakura Ozawa, recalls that by age 7, it was clear that Seiji had such an ear for music that Katsumi persuaded the junior high school to let them use the piano a few times a week. Soon, Katsumi so believed in Seiji's talent that he convinced their parents that Seiji needed his own piano.
"This was right after the war; nobody had pianos in Tokyo," Mikio Ozawa recalls. "But we had this distant relative in Yokohama with an old piano who said, 'Yes, we'll sell it to you for 50,000 yen,' [$385 at current exchange rates], which at that time was an enormous amount of money."
The family didn't have enough money to hire a truck to transport the instrument, so the teenaged Katsumi and Toshio rigged up a hand cart and hauled the piano 50 kilometers from Yokohama themselves.
"We were really poor and had to pull together and cooperate or we couldn't have survived," Mikio says. Those sacrifices built a deep sense of loyalty and closeness among the brothers. (Katsumi died in 1984). Today, Ozawa the conductor may be the busiest member of the clan, but he calls frequently and is the one who organizes family reunions.
In February, even while he was frantically preparing music for the Nagano Winter Olympics, Mikio says, "Seiji called every distant relative and got everyone together for our mother's 90th birthday. He's the catalyst for family events, the glue holding us together."
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