Japan was entirely cut off from all other nations until the 1850s and made no effort to “modernize” itself. Thus, when Hideo Saito was born in Tokyo in 1902, there was very little European musical tradition in the country. However, his father, a professor, was a leader in that Westernization. He was an expert in English language studies and the first to compile a comprehensive English-Japanese dictionary. This interest in English literature affected all the children, all of whom learned to play a Western instrument. All eight of his siblings restricted their musical activities to private and social occasions; only Hideo went on to public music-making. When Saito entered Sophia University, he specialized in German but he continued to have an interest in music. He arrived in Leipzig in 1923 to continue his cello studies.
After the war Saito decided to become active in teaching music. He gained the conviction that Western musical traditions could successfully be grafted on the strong Japanese respect for arts and culture. The key, he thought, was to start with children. So in 1948, he founded a children’s music school, starting with classrooms he rented from Tokyo Kasei Gakuen, a girls’ finishing school.
In 1952 he persuaded the Toho Gakuen to start a High School of Music for students aged 15 to 18. A few years later it added a Toho Gakuen College of Music. He was a teacher to an entire generation of Japanese Western-style musicians.
In 1964, he took the Toho Children’s Orchestra on tour to America and later to the USSR and Europe. In 1974 he prepared the orchestra for another major tour, despite his declining health. He died just before its scheduled departure and his pupils decided that the greatest tribute to him would be to continue the orchestra’s tour as scheduled. It was conducted on that tour by Saito’s pupil Seiji Ozawa.