Renowned Japanese Composer Admits Fraud

By MARTIN FACKLER / New York Times News Service

TOKYO - He was celebrated as a prolific musical genius whose compositions appeared in popular video games and the competition routine of a top figure skater in the coming Sochi Olympics. His deafness won him praise as Japan’s modern-day Beethoven.

It turns out that his magnum opus was his own masquerade.

On Thursday, Japan learned that one of its most popular musical figures, Mamoru Samuragochi, 50, had staged an elaborate hoax in which someone else had secretly written his most famous compositions, and he had perhaps even faked his hearing disability.

Across a nation long captivated by Western classical music, people reacted with remorse, outrage, and even the rare threat of a lawsuit after Samuragochi’s revelations that he had hired a ghostwriter since the 1990s to compose most of his music. The anger turned to disbelief when the ghostwriter himself came forward to accuse Samuragochi of faking his deafness, apparently to win public sympathy and shape the Beethoven persona.

The scandal began Wednesday, when Samuragochi confessed that someone else had written his most famous works. These include Symphony No. 1 “Hiroshima,” about the 1945 atomic bombing of his home city, which became a classical music hit in Japan; the theme music for the video games Resident Evil and Onimusha; and Sonatina for Violin, which the Japanese Olympic figure skater Daisuke Takahashi is scheduled to use in his short program performance at the Winter Games in Sochi.

The timing could hardly have been worse for Takahashi, a potential medalist who won the bronze in the Vancouver Olympics four years ago. He said in a statement that he would continue to skate to the musical piece - he had little choice with scant time left before the competition - and hoped the revelations would not overshadow his performance.

“Takahashi and the people involved with him did not know about this incident,” the statement said. “This is a crucial time just before the Olympics.”

On Wednesday, Samuragochi expressed remorse for the deception, although did not reveal why he had chosen to come forward at that particular moment.

“Samuragochi is deeply sorry as he has betrayed fans and disappointed others,” said the written confession, released by Samuragochi’s lawyer. “He knows he could not possibly make any excuse for what he has done.”

The reason for this sudden repentance became clear Thursday when the ghostwriter revealed himself to be Takashi Niigaki, 43, a hitherto largely unknown part-time lecturer at a prestigious music college in Tokyo. Niigaki said he had written more than 20 songs for Samuragochi since 1996, for which he received the equivalent of about $70,000.

He said he felt so guilty about the deception that he had threatened to go public in the past, but Samuragochi begged him not to. He said he finally could not take it anymore when he learned one of his songs would be used by the Olympic skater. He told his story to a weekly tabloid, which went on sale Thursday.

“He told me that if I didn’t write songs for him, he’d commit suicide,” Niigaki told a crowded news conference. “But I could not bear the thought of skater Takahashi being seen by the world as a co-conspirator in our crime.”

Perhaps just as shocking was Niigaki’s assertion that Samuragochi was never deaf. Niigaki said he had regular conversations with Samuragochi, who listened to and commented on his compositions. Niigaki said the deafness was just “an act that he was performing to the outside world.”

Repeated calls and faxes to Samuragochi’s lawyers after Niigaki’s news conference were not answered.

It was unclear exactly how Samuragochi duped the world since asserting that he had gone deaf in the late 1990s. No one, it seemed, suspected that the one-time child music prodigy had not composed his own work. But in past interviews with the news media, Samuragochi gave an explanation that might explain why no one ever doubted his hearing loss: He said he was completely deaf in one ear but had some hearing in the other that was assisted by a hearing aid.

The scandal has brought an abrupt fall from grace for Samuragochi, a man who looked the part of a modern-day composer with his long hair, stylish dark suits and ever-present sunglasses.

Much of Samuragochi’s appeal seemed to lie in his inspiring life story, especially for a country so fascinated by classical music. Japan was the birthplace of the Suzuki string method, and international superstars like the conductor Seiji Ozawa and the pianist Mitsuko Uchida are the source of great pride there. Tokyo alone has some 10 professional orchestras, and the Japanese in the past have been among the biggest buyers of recorded classical music.

The public adored Samuragochi, who appeared to have overcame a physical disability, the loss of almost all of his hearing at age 35 because of a degenerative condition, to achieve his dream. In a 2007 autobiography titled “Symphony No. 1,” Samuragochi described himself as the son of an atomic bomb survivor and able to play Beethoven and Bach on the piano by age 10.

Samuragochi seemed to reach the height of his popularity last year, when Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, aired a documentary titled “Melody of the Soul: The Composer Who Lost His Hearing” that followed him as he met survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.

He regularly appeared in many major news media, including Time magazine, which quoted him in a 2001 interview as saying that the loss of hearing had turned out to be “a gift from God.”

“I listen to myself,” he told the magazine. “If you trust your inner sense of sound, you create something that is truer. It is like communicating from the heart.”

The disclosure of his deception brought a wave of apologies by major Japanese news media, which expressed regret about having failed to uncover Samuragochi’s deceit.

“We want him to explain his behavior,” said the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-biggest-selling newspaper, in a mea culpa published Thursday, “but the media must also consider our own tendency to fall for tear-jerking stories.”

The episode also shook Japan’s struggling music industry, for whom Samuragochi had offered a rare respite from declining sales of classical CDs. The Hiroshima symphony sold 180,000 copies in a classical music market where sales of 10,000 constitute a hit.

The music company Nippon Columbia said in a statement that it was “appalled and deeply indignant,” and would stop selling his CDs. Orchestras across Japan said they were canceling concerts that featured Samuragochi’s music. One, the Kyushu Symphony Orchestra, said it was considering a lawsuit to retrieve lost ticket sales, an extreme expression of anger in nonlitigious Japan.

The mayor of Hiroshima also threatened to strip Samuragochi of a “citizen’s award” that the city had given him for promoting the city’s message of opposing nuclear weapons.

“We never imagined this,” the mayor, Kazumi Matsui, was quoted as telling the daily Yomiuri Shimbun. “We are aghast.”