The future of Western classical music in Japan took a decisive turn in 1950, when 15-year-old Seiji Ozawa sprained his finger in a rugby game. As Ozawa was unable to play the piano, his music teacher, Hideo Saito, took him to a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. He came away burning with the desire to be the maestro eliciting those celestial sounds from an orchestra. Nine years later, Ozawa won first prize at an international conducting competition in France, which earned him an invitation to conduct at Tanglewood, the summer home of the legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra. By 1973, Ozawa was its music director, a post he held for an astonishing 29 years.
The shock of hair and the elegant, elastic swirl of limbs have made Ozawa a classical-music icon worldwide. Yet it is in Japan that he has made his strongest mark, almost single-handedly raising the country's music to an international standard. "In Japan there were two levels of musicmaking. Half the concerts were all-Japanese orchestras and performers, which had the same small audiences at every performance," he told TIME. "The other half were by international artists, which charged 10 times as much and they were always full ... I found that very sad."
Ozawa's response, in 1992, was to found the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Named after his music teacher, it is now an orchestra of international standing. In 2002, the maestro took charge of the Vienna State Opera, following in the footsteps of legends like Herbert von Karajan. Thinking boldly as ever, he then set about creating a world-class opera company in Japan. In 2005, he conducted the Tokyo Opera Nomori's debut Richard Strauss's difficult Elektra. In other words, while many Asian performers have achieved stardom in the West, none have labored more passionately to make classical music a global two-way street.