In the past few months, the media has been pleasantly surprised at the sudden ascendancy of some noteworthy Japanese women, mainly in the realm of politics. Since pianist Hiroko Nakamura passed away in July, the media has been filled with obituaries that paid tribute to her own powerful position in Japan’s classical music scene some 50 years ago.

Internationally, Seiji Ozawa is a more well-known musician, but his effect on Japan’s embrace of Western music is slight compared to Nakamura’s — which isn’t to say she was a superior artist. She was an excellent technician who didn’t make a big impression as a performer abroad, but her ability to communicate what was appealing about so-called serious music at a time when Japanese society was going through huge changes was fortuitous. She deserves credit for sparking the classical music boom that swept Japan in the 1970s and ’80s.

Nakamura was born in 1944 to a well-to-do family and attended the Toho Gakuen School of Music, which also produced Ozawa. Even as a child she wanted to be a professional pianist, and she didn’t require a lot of encouragement or direction. She won the Japan Music Competition in 1959, and the following year embarked on a world tour with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. In an interview on NHK’s tribute to Nakamura, conductor Yuzo Toyama said she was the first Asian solo musician European audiences had ever seen perform European music, adding that they were “shocked” that a Japanese artist could possess the proper sensibility to tackle the Western canon.

In 1963, Nakamura enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where her teacher made her start from zero. Her style was florid and showy, and she had to relearn how to “attack the keys.” Later she admitted that the experience shook her to the core. She had been spoiled as a teenager by constant praise, and while at first she felt as if she were being condescended to as a Japanese — a native of a country that lost World War II — inevitably she buckled down and altered her style. This reeducation meant her playing became more accepted internationally. Harold Schonberg, music critic for the New York Times, praised her playing in his first-ever review of an Asian artist. In 1965, Nakamura came fourth at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

She should have returned to Japan triumphantly, but instead was met with veiled resentment. She wasn’t the first: Ozawa had succeeded abroad and initially wasn’t taken seriously as a conductor in his native land due to envy over that success. Japan’s classical music world was dominated by men who didn’t trust students who went abroad, since — as in Nakamura’s case — it often meant rejecting Japanese methods of music pedagogy.

Ozawa fled back to Europe and the U.S., but Nakamura stayed to become a concert pianist in Japan, a decision that was doubly difficult since she was a woman. However, it was her gender, combined with a proud temperament that was a natural product of her privileged upbringing, which provided her with the means to stand out in a field of inherently interchangeable pianists.

Her dominance of that field was also a function of postwar socioeconomics. In 1992, my partner and I interviewed Nakamura for a local magazine, and one of our themes was the inordinately large number of female classical musicians in Japan, both as students and professionals. At the time in America and, especially, Europe, classical music was still a man’s game.

“Boys are not usually encouraged to become professional musicians,” she said, speaking about the situation in Japan. “You have to sacrifice your everyday life, starting when you’re 3 or 4 years old.” Middle-class parents, anxious about their male offsprings’ prospects, would rather they enter into competition for the best jobs at the earliest age, which meant getting on an educational track that leads to the best schools. And as she pointed out, even for boys from rich families who dream of a music career, “there’s no guarantee you’re going to be the next Horowitz.”

This explained why boys weren’t becoming musicians, but not why so many girls were, and she was uncharacteristically modest when she theorized that most didn’t enter music school with the idea of becoming professionals. In truth many did, and they were inspired by Nakamura, who was not only talented but openly ambitious, a trait Japanese women at the time were discouraged from displaying.

Her first coup as a professional was economic. She became Sony Records’ first “exclusive” artist in 1968, at a time when classical record sales were monopolized by foreign artists. Sony gave her a platform from which to spread the classical gospel to average people just as their incomes were increasing to a level where they could enjoy a wider range of leisure activities. Previously only the elite attended concerts, but she made a point of not only playing for everyone, but proselytizing in a way that didn’t patronize.

However, she did it without abandoning her patrician airs. Nakamura was the consummate ojosan (well-bred young lady), happily ostentatious in her appetites. She married an award-winning novelist, lived in a luxurious apartment with a view of Tokyo Tower, and surrounded herself with people of high social standing, many of whom were not Japanese. She never made as big a splash internationally as her contemporary Mitsuko Uchida did, because she wasn’t as good a pianist, but given her prerogatives as a professional, this didn’t bother her. Being a big fish in a small pond suited her ego and her capabilities, and she was rewarded handsomely for it.

In our interview she was candid about the classical music world, wryly critical of its embedded prejudices while expressing no reservations about her own. Later, after cooler retrospection, she asked to have some comments cut, afraid they might offend certain parties. We relented but then wondered what she was worried about. She was Hiroko Nakamura; if she couldn’t be an iconoclast, who could?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.