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Playing against the Odds: the Violin in Japan

Margaret Mehl

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Published: October 23, 2014 at 11:29 AM [UTC]

A recent scandal in the world of classical music in Japan eve made it into the foreign press: “'Japan's Beethoven' Samuragochi paid hearing composer to write music,” screamed a headline in the Guardian on 5 February 2014. And on 2 May the New Yorker carried a detailed article entitled The Unmasking of “Japan’s Beethoven” (by Roland Kelts).

Mamoru Samuragochi, born in 1963 in Hiroshima continued to compose even after he allegedly turned totally deaf at the age of 35. His works include the Symphony No 1, "Hiroshima", a tribute to the victims of the atomic bomb in 1945. Japans national broadcasting association NHK aired a documentary in March 2013, which showed Samuragochi comforting tsunami victims during a tour of the Tôhoku region.

When it became known that the figure skater Daisuke Takahashi planned to use Samuragochi’s Sonatina for Violin (recorded by the violinist Ôtani Yasuko) for his performance at the Sochi Olympics, the composer and music professor Takashi Niigaki revealed that he had acted as a ghost composer for Samuragochi. Samuragochi admitted this and apologized profusely, causing considerable embarrassment to NHk and other media as well as Nippon Columbia Co., who sold recordings of his works.

The Sonatina was originally composed for the violinist Miku Okubo, and her story added another dimension to the scandal. Okubo was born with only one fully functional arm, her left one. Thanks to a prosthetic right arm. , she has learnt to play the violin. A TV documentary made in 2008 featured Okubo performing with another famous figure skater, Asada Mao. According to the programme, Okubo dreamt of becoming a violin teacher. Later, Samuragochi became her self-appointed mentor.

The story of Miku Okubo, striving to play the violin against the odds is moving and her achievement impressive. Nevertheless, I cannot help asking myself why she (or her parents, given her tender age when she started learning) decided that she should play the violin, of all instruments. Even with two fully functional arms and hands the violin is surely one of the most difficult instruments to play.

But then overcoming seemingly unsurmountable difficulties is the essence of what made Beethoven an immensely popular figure in Japan long before most of his music could be heard (see my January 2012 blog ”Kreutzer Sonata” ). Another variation on this theme is the well-publicized story of the violinist Narimichi Kawabata. Kawabata began to study the violin at the relatively late age of 10 with a view to becoming a soloist, after an illness contracted during a holiday in Los Angeles caused hi m to loose most of his eyesight.

Choosing the violin may well reflect the high esteem the violin has held in Japan almost since its introduction in the second half of the 19th century. Authors of violin tutors around 1900 seldom failed to point out that the violin was the “King” (or “Queen”) of Western instruments, and when it became fashionable to play Japanese koto (plucked zither) and shamisen (three-stringed plucked lute) melodies on the violin at around this time, representatives of the orthodoxy in the field of Western classical music deplored the desecration of the “flower” of Western music. In the Western world the violin has long commanded a mystique, symbolizing both heaven and hell and inspiring numerous artists beyond the realm of music, as David Schoenbaum shows in “Book 4: Imagining It” in his monumental from social history of the violin. Much of this mystique was adopted by the Japanese together with the instrument, and they moreover added some of their own.

You can read more about the violin in Japan, including the story of Narimichi Kawabata, in my new book, Not by Love Alone.

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