A pioneer as the first Japanese conductor to break into the very top echelons of the international Western classical music scene, Seiji Ozawa is a Kennedy Center honoree because he served as one of the leading orchestral conductors in the world. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

For a couple of decades, Seiji Ozawa was one of the most familiar faces in American classical music. Turn on your TV, or look in your record store, and you’d see him: the mane of Beatles-like hair, the signature turtleneck in lieu of a starched shirt, the emotive energetic gestures. He ruled the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of America’s most venerable and honored orchestras, for a record 29 years. He recorded just about everything.

Iconic though he is, people have a hard time pinning him down. He conducted with technical brilliance but didn’t have a repertory specialty — he did it all. He has been a wonderful teacher and led the training program at the Tanglewood Festival, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home, but doesn’t have a clear legacy. He was a great American conductor but remained Japanese through and through. Now, he’s a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, which turns the spotlight anew on such questions and will, possibly, help find the answers.

“You always knew it was an Ozawa concert,” says Tom Rolfs, the BSO’s principal trumpet, whom Ozawa hired in 1991. “He had a sense of driving rhythm under everything else that was going on. He had a sense of ferocity. He brought you into his world and moved us along.”

“There aren’t a lot of truly great conductors,” Rolfs adds. “But he was one of them.”

Ozawa has been called enigmatic. Some interviewers have found him distant and off-putting. Many have complained that his English, even after so many years in the States, never got very good. So nothing prepared me for the genial, relaxed figure — hair now gray, but no less abundant — bubbling over with anecdotes and goodwill on my computer screen as we Skyped from Tokyo, 7,000 miles and 14 hours apart. Now 80 years old, recovered from serious illness (esophageal cancer, back surgery, several bouts of pneumonia), with nothing to lose and without the heavy workload he carried for so long, Ozawa is downright delightful.

He can reminisce about the great Herbert von Karajan, who was his conducting teacher in the 1960s, telling him not to micromanage the orchestra in the Brahms First: “You just conduct tempi, and they will listen to each other.” He remembers Charles Munch, a jury member when he won the Besancon conducting competition in France 1959, inviting him to Tanglewood and praising his “La Mer” as “souple.” He remembers Leonard Bernstein, who hired him as an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, seeing him sitting alone in a corner at Carnegie Hall and impulsively bringing him along to the hospital to see his new baby daughter, Nina.

But to really animate Ozawa, get him to talk about baseball. About his father’s response to the Japanese surrender: “Now, let’s play baseball,” since the game had been banned as an American import. (His mother sewed them homemade baseball gloves.) About his first major league game, in Fenway Park, in 1960, and his lifelong devotion to the Red Sox. About his trip to the States during his recovery from cancer and surgery in 2013, when the Red Sox made the playoffs and won the World Series — as they never once did in all his years in Boston. He holds his foot up to the computer and pulls up his pants leg to show that he still wears, every day, a pair of bright red socks.

A new ambition

It’s rugby, not baseball, that the music world has to thank for Ozawa’s career. As a boy, he played it ardently — but hid the fact from his family. He was a serious piano student, and “I knew that piano and rugby doesn’t work together,” he says. “It was very secret. But I was absolutely passionate about rugby.” Sure enough: He had a rugby accident, and two broken fingers put an end to his piano career. “I was number 8,” he says, referring to the position he played on the rugby team, “which is very important to make a decision, so I think they attacked me purposely.”

The aftermath was unpleasant: family upheaval, a mother’s tears and a promising career cut short. But, Ozawa says,“my piano teacher said to me, ‘Seiji, you don’t have to give up music completely. There is a way to stay in music if you become an orchestra conductor.’ ”

“I never watched conductor,” Ozawa says now. “I never went to an orchestra concert. And so then I went to a concert.” The conductor and pianist Leonid Kreutzer conducted Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto from the keyboard; “I thought that was amazing,” Ozawa says. He went home and told his mother of his new ambition, and she remembered that a distant relative of hers was a conducting teacher. So she wrote a letter of introduction for her son to Hideo Saito, who happened to be one of the leading music pedagogues in Japan — and who was to become Ozawa’s main mentor and influence for the rest of his life.

It was an unlikely start to a pioneering career.

(L to R): Seiji Ozawa and his late mentor, Japanese conductor and cellist, Hideo Saito. (Courtesy of the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival)

Conducting students at Tanglewood in 1960. (L to R): Harold Farberman, Seiji Ozawa and Diogo Pacheco with conductor Eleazar de Carvalho. (Whitestone Photo)

Ozawa was the first Japanese conductor to attain international status in the leading ensembles of the world. He achieved it, furthermore, without sacrificing his Japanese identity. It’s true that early in his career, Tokyo’s NHK orchestra once publicly refused to play under him, charging him with arrogance — his style was too Westernized, too blunt. Such problems have been put aside long since, and Japan has remained home. Having spent part of his childhood in China, and knowing what it felt like to start Japanese school as a quasi-foreigner — “I was half Chinese and half Japanese, my language,” he says — he made sure his own children were fully immersed in their own culture. Once his son and daughter reached school age, his wife, Vera, remained based with them in Japan, while Ozawa commuted to Boston — and around the world.

“I am Japanese,” he said in an interview in “Ozawa,” a documentary film the Maysles brothers made in 1985 about his life. “I am Oriental. And sometimes I say, Why I become Western music musician? But I think that made my life much more interesting, much more exciting. But I had to pay a price.”

Even as a student, Ozawa knew that to achieve what he wanted, he had to come to the West. Lacking funds, he booked passage to Paris on a cargo ship. “It took me 62 days,” he says. “I am only passenger.” He whiled away the time by turning the crew into a chorus, drawing music paper by hand and teaching them how to sing his arrangements. “Too bad I didn’t keep that paper,” he says. When he arrived, he couldn’t even get the Japanese Embassy to support his application for the Besancon competition — “I was just like funny tourist, no money” — but a kind soul at the American Embassy intervened, and through her aegis he was able to apply. And won. It didn’t seem like an immediate entree to a career, but by 1960 he had Tanglewood, studies with Karajan and the New York Philharmonic gig to show for himself.

Never without work

Asian musicians still face prejudice in Western musical circles, and Ozawa no doubt came in for plenty of it. He was protected, to an extent, by hard work and the language barrier — but that had its own problems. He spoke almost no English when he arrived in the U.S. “I really suffer,” he says. “I [didn’t] understand what they say.” As Bernstein’s assistant, helping with the Young People’s Concerts that became such a legend in New York, he had to rely on his fellow assistants to figure out what was going on. When he was offered the music directorship of the Ravinia Festival in 1964, he didn’t understand what he’d agreed to.

The festival’s head “came to me after the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and said, We give you this festival,” Ozawa says now. “But he said it in a very fancy way, and I did not understand.” Not until he was in Holland conducting his next gig, he says, did he hear from his manager, the famed conductor-maker Ronald Wilford: “Why didn’t you tell me you got work next summer?” He led the Ravinia Festival for five years.

Seiji Ozawa (left), Aaron Copland (center), and Leonard Bernstein (right) talk after a concert in 1980. (Walter H. Scott/New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives)

Seiji Ozawa during first rehearsal after officially becoming director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Frank C. Curtin/AP)

After that, Ozawa was never without work. Ravinia led to the Toronto Symphony, where he made some of his first recordings — including a disk of Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalila” symphony, with Messiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod as soloist, that remains a benchmark. (Messiaen later chose him to lead the world premiere of his remarkable opera “Saint-Francois d’Assise” in Paris.)

The next stop was San Francisco, where Ozawa — by now married a second time, with a child on the way — envisioned putting down roots. “I wanted to build the San Francisco Symphony like George Szell did Cleveland,” he says. “And the town was so good: Japantown, Chinatown.” When the Boston Symphony Orchestra came calling, he resisted. They had to ask a few times before he said yes — and even then he tried to lead both orchestras at the same time, until his health began to suffer. Boston, of course, won.

Ozawa’s tenure in Boston has only been equaled, in length, by a handful of conductors. It was probably too long. He oversaw some fine years, led the orchestra on significant tours, and presided over a significant expansion of the Tanglewood campus and the construction of the wonderful chamber-music facility called Ozawa Hall. But in his later years, there was also a sense that he and the orchestra had grown tired of each other, and that standards were declining. Nonetheless, his departure in 2002, when he left to take over the Vienna State Opera, was marked with genuine emotion.

Today, says Mark Volpe, the orchestra’s general manager, “he comes back and it’s total deification. Especially the youngsters. He’s part of history. He comes to the hall when we’re playing Suntory Hall [in Japan] and the orchestra lines up [to greet him]. He had wonderful family relationships.”

Ozawa has won most of the awards the classical music world has to offer. His children are grown; his son, Yukiyoshi, is an actor, and his daughter Seira is a writer with a 1-year-old son. For all of the allegations of his “inscrutability,” he seems to be simply a devoted family guy who gave his life to music. More details may emerge in the forthcoming English translation of a book by the acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami called “I talked to Mr. Seiji Ozawa about music.” It was a big success in Japan.

“It went so fast,” Ozawa says, looking back on his long career, and his 29 years in Boston. “I must say, I had a wonderful time.”