This week Japanese Olympic figure skater, Daisuke Takahashi, found himself in the midst of national scandal, through no fault of his own. Takahashi skated his short program to a piece of music that had been initially attributed to Mamoru Samuragochi, known as "Japan's Beethoven," who was recently revealed to be neither a composer, nor possibly even deaf. Bob talks with Roland Kelts, author of JapanAmerica, about the revelations and the Japanese media's reaction to them.
BOB GARFIELD: That was a story about a prominent figure for two decades, supported by someone who does not exist. From that, we move to news of a prominent figure for two decades supported by someone real, previously unknown to exist. It's a scandal that has captivated Japan, a national drama triggered, through no fault of his own, by Olympic Japanese figure skater –
COMMENTATOR: A brilliant skater, Daisuke Takahashi.
BOB GARFIELD: Thursday in Sochi, Takahashi skated his short program to a piece credited to the deaf composer, Mamoru Samuragochi, but an obscure adjunct music professor came forward to say that it was he, not Samuragochi, who had composed the piece, as well as much of Samuragochi’s body of work over 18 years. Day by day, more of the mystery has unraveled. Here to discuss the revelations, is Roland Kelts, author of JapanAmerica. Roland, welcome back to the show.
ROLAND KELTS: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: How did Samuragochi come to prominence?
ROLAND KELTS: When he composed this piece called Hiroshima Symphony No. 1 and dedicated it to the victims of the atomic bomb. And then, more recently, he was featured in a documentary memorializing the victims of the earthquake and tsunami up in northern Japan. And this Hiroshima piece became a kind of unofficial theme song of the victims of the disaster.
BOB GARFIELD: But he is a musician and he is deaf, right?
ROLAND KELTS: Well, [LAUGHS] that’s another issue. He penned a mea culpa of sorts on Wednesday, explaining that he was deaf years ago but that more recently his hearing his come back to him. Now, at the press conference last week that broke this story, Takashi Niigaki, who has actually written most of the works credited to Samuragochi, claims that Samuragochi never seemed deaf to him at all. [LAUGHS] It almost puts a, you know, kind of fairy tale Cyrano de Bergerac scheme that here’s this –
- this guy who dresses like a rock star – I mean, he has long flowing hair, he wears sunglasses, labeled in some quarters as “Japan's Beethoven.” allegedly deaf, composing this beautiful music that honored the Japanese who had died in Hiroshima and, in the more recent natural disasters, and suddenly he turns out to be a fraud. And then the next step is that he may not be deaf, at all.
BOB GARFIELD: The ghost composer who came forward, he said he did so because he was just guilt-ridden at the ongoing fraud. Do – do you think that's what's happening here?
ROLAND KELTS: His claim is that he came forward when he did because he felt that on the global stage where so many Japanese were watching this figure skater and hoping that he could win a medal, that he didn't want this young figure skater to be unwittingly participating in a crime of deceit.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, if this was pathological behavior on the part of Samuragochi, it also took some significant errors of omission and commission on the part of the Japanese media, which has been retailing this story now for, you know, close to 20 years. Is this a classic case of just too good to check?
ROLAND KELTS: Well, classical music in Japan, as it is in most parts of the world, has been losing listeners, and so, in a way, be industry was promoting Samuragochi as a pop cultural figure, a deaf composer who reaches out to the soul of Japan and overcomes his difficulties. It’s a classic Japanese hero story. The Japanese media, and, and I suppose it’s true of media elsewhere, really tends to track sensationalized sentimental stories. So, in a way, Samuragochi, if he knew what he was doing, it was a very clever ploy to exploit what the Japanese media loves to report.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of the newspapers, and these are very large news organizations - the Asahi Shimbun, for example, has something like, I don’t know, 12 million daily circulation - apologized to its readers, as – as did other newspapers?
ROLAND KELTS: Yes, and some television networks, as well, suggesting that they should have done more thorough background checks, they should have uncovered this fiasco earlier. I mean, after all, it's been ongoing since the late 1990s.
BOB GARFIELD: Have we exhausted the possibility that this is actually a con within a con -
ROLAND KELTS: Not at all!
BOB GARFIELD: - and that all parties have engineered the whole thing to juice CD sales or improve TV ratings or - ? Is, is that within the realm of possibility?
ROLAND KELTS: I mean, purely as an audience member watching this happen, I think that would be fantastic.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] It would, indeed. Roland, thank you so much.
ROLAND KELTS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: New Yorker contributor Roland Kelts is a visiting scholar at Keio University.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer and Meera Sharma. We had more help from Kimmie Regler. And our show was edited, more or less in absentia - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme.
I just want to quickly plug our blog for a minute. This week OTM and TLDR Producer PJ Vogt wrote about the Facebook reality distortion field. It’s the reason you see so many articles about Facebook in the media. He also wrote about his chilling discovery that strangers can pinpoint exactly where you are, just by getting you to open an email. He posts twice a day, and it is a perfect digest of the oddities of the internet. Read it at onthemedia.org, where you can also subscribe to the TLDR podcast. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.