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Mamoru Samuragochi is known as the “Japanese Beethoven” because he composed some of the country’s most well-known music after losing his hearing. But it turns out he didn’t really write much of that music.
Samuragochi admitted on Wednesday he had a ghostwriter. That ghostwriter is now coming forward, and is suggesting Samuragochi might not even be deaf.
The BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson from Tokyo.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C MINOR")
HOBSON: The great classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven was deaf for much of his life. But at least, as far as we know, he did actually compose the symphonies he's so famous for, like this one, Beethoven's "5th," which we can't say for the man known as Japan's Beethoven, a guy named Mamoru Samuragochi.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIROSHIMA")
HOBSON: This is the "Hiroshima" symphony, which Samuragochi claimed he wrote as a tribute to the Japanese people killed in the 1945 atomic blast at the end of World War II. Well, this week, he admitted to hiring someone else to write his music for almost two decades, and that ghostwriter is now saying he's not even sure Samuragochi is deaf. The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes is following this story. He's with us from Tokyo. Rupert, welcome back.
RUPERT WINGFIELD-HAYES: It's nice to be back, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, first of all, how big of a story is this in Japan?
WINGFIELD-HAYES: Oh, it's huge. I mean, the country is gripped by this, first, by the original admission from Mr. Samuragochi on Wednesday when he sort of released the statements through his lawyer saying, you know, yes, I did use a ghostwriter. It was a sort of half admission saying he had used a ghostwriter. It was because of his deteriorating health that he had sought collaboration and that he should have been more honest about it. But he didn't, you know, didn't go the whole way.
And now we've had this press conference yesterday when the ghostwriter himself, Takashi Niigaki, came out and, I mean, the revelations, if true, are even more astonishing. I mean, he said Mr. Samuragochi cannot write music. He doesn't believe he's deaf. And that he's written every piece of music for him for the last 18 years.
HOBSON: But Samuragochi's lawyer is saying that he is deaf, right? He is pushing back on that.
WINGFIELD-HAYES: At the moment, Samuragochi's lawyer has - yeah, he won't go any further. He certainly has not acknowledged this idea that Mr. Samuragochi is not deaf. This has only come from Mr. Niigaki. But, you know, I mean, these two had a very, I mean, they clearly have had a very, very long-term relationship. It's very clear that Mr. Niigaki is the one who has been writing the music. But his allegations - he said that he was taken on by Mr. Samuragochi as an assistant, and that's the role that he thought that he was performing.
And then, you know, over the years, it sort of started to become clear that he was writing all the music, Mr. Samuragochi was taking all the credit for writing the music, and he felt bad about it. But whenever he confronted the famous composer about this lie that they were living, he says Mr. Samuragochi threatened to kill himself. And so he, you know, he lived in fear that this would, you know, that something terrible would happen, and so he kept on living this lie for 18 years.
HOBSON: Well, tell us more about Mr. Samuragochi. He started playing the piano when he was four years old, taught by his mother. It sounded as if he was a child prodigy.
WINGFIELD-HAYES: Yeah. That's certainly the story that he has portrayed himself to the outside world, that he was a child prodigy. And then at the age of 35, he started to lose his hearing. And then he described his loss of hearing as being a gift from God because he said it helped him to feel the music more and that, you know, it informed his composing. So, you know, he really - if this is, you know, if this is all a big lie, he has gone to very, very long length to sort of fabricate this extraordinary story around himself.
HOBSON: And he's now 50 years old. That music that we played at the beginning, the "Hiroshima" symphony, actually became informally known as the symphony of hope. It was played around the time of the tsunami in Japan in 2011. He even met with some of the survivors. How important of a figure was he or is he in Japan?
WINGFIELD-HAYES: He's very - well, he's extremely well-known in Japan, and this music is very well-known. As you say, although that symphony number one, "Hiroshima," was originally composed to celebrate or to commemorate the dead from the atomic bombing in 1945, it was really taken on after the 2011 earthquake tsunami disaster here as being an anthem for the survivors. As you say, he toured the tsunami disaster zones.
NHK, Japan's national broadcaster last year made a documentary about him going through those places, meeting people. And then, you know, he became even more famous because of that because he was seen on national television in this NHK documentary. So he's a very, very well-known figure in Japan, and that's why I think it's, you know, it's just so profoundly shocking to people here that this could all be a lie.
HOBSON: And if listeners, by the way, don't know his classical music, he is also famous for the music he composed - or I guess the music he says he composed - for videogames including "Resident Evil" and another game called "Onimusha." Let's listen to some of the soundtrack from that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: Now, Rupert, you're not much of a gamer, I don't think, right? But people have heard of this guy all over the world.
WINGFIELD-HAYES: Yeah, that's right. And I think this is actually where, you know, it started out. And this was in the mid-1990s when he wrote that - or he said that he wrote that music for those videogames. And that's actually where he first became popular because those games that he - his music were used in was - those games were enormously popular. And so they were known not just here in Japan, but those - that music was known all over the world as you say.
HOBSON: Are stores that sell his music pulling him off the shelves?
WINGFIELD-HAYES: Not that I know of. I mean, you know, one of the things that sort of brought this all to a head is that one of his pieces of music - or one of the pieces he's supposed to have written - is going to be used by a very famous Japanese ice skater at the Sochi Olympics for his individual routine next week. And when the ghostwriter, Mr. Niigaki, heard that this was going to happen, he said that was it. That was the final straw.
WINGFIELD-HAYES: And that he was, you know, this fraud was now not just going to be in Japan, but it was going to go to the Olympics and he couldn't take it anymore. And that's why he finally decided to come out in public because he didn't want any sort of shame or scandal to be brought down on Japan's ice skating team at the Olympics.
HOBSON: Well, I think we have a little bit of that music. Let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: Rupert, you know, usually we talk to you about the Fukushima disaster or some business story in Japan. This has got to be an interesting one to cover.
WINGFIELD-HAYES: It is. And, you know, it's - in a country like Japan, I mean, you know, fraud happens all over the world, but I think in Japan, honor, honesty, you know, these are still things that are held very high in Japanese society. And that, again, I think, is why people are just amazed that this person could have carried on this life for so long.
HOBSON: The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes speaking to us from Tokyo although, Rupert, are we sure it's really you?
WINGFIELD-HAYES: Well, I'll leave that for you to find out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIROSHIMA" SYMPHONY)
HOBSON: And Robin, this is more music from the "Hiroshima" symphony, which we thought was composed by Mamoru Samuragochi, but it turns out it was probably written by that ghostwriter we heard about, Takashi Niigaki. Quite a story.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.