Masao Sen

Masao Sen

Koma Theater

Fifteen years ago, singer Masao Sen was a household name, and immediately associated with three distinguishing features - his enormous wealth, his blonde American wife, and the prominent mole in the center of his forehead. Now, at 53, Sen is still well-known, despite living most of the time in Hawaii, but his wealth, his wife and his mole are gone.

Sen, born in Iwate Prefecture, made his debut as an enka (blues) singer in 1960 after becoming a student of the composer Minoru Endo. His most famous hit is "Kitaguni no Haru" (North Country Spring) and throughout his career he has deliberately stressed his poor, country origins by including workman' clothes and a shabby raincoat among his costumes. This Columbo of enka appealed to the public for the same reasons the American detective does his scruffy stage appearance, down-to-earth approach and quick wits.

Thanks considerably to his former wife's financial advice, Sen became the most famous multimillionaire entrepreneur in Japan's entertainment world. At the height of his wealth, he lived in a luxurious, 13-room home used previously as an embassy. He owned vacation homes in Lake Yamanaka, Izu, Hawaii and Spain and several cars including a Rolls Royce and Mercedes. He has a pilot's license and kept his own plane, plus a house in Hokkaido with a landing strip. He invested heavily in real estate and owned several hotels and buildings in Hawaii, Australia, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Yet it was this extensive investing that caused his downfall, for when the bubble burst in the late '80s Sen's finances spiraled down faster than a jet with engine failure. With debts of over JY1 billion, he was forced to claim bankruptcy last year for his company, Abe Enterprises, and its 50 or so offices worldwide. The interest on his loans alone are said to hover at around JY5 million a day, and have forced him to resume the singing career that had become more of a hobby in richer times.

On Christmas Eve, when he should have been back at home in Honolulu with his second wife and children, Sen was on the concert circuit, singing at Shinjuku's Koma Theater. He cracked jokes about his money woes, but his disheveled stage clothes were gone. He no longer needs to pretend to be poor. His Buddha-like facial mole was also conspicuously absent. Whether he can sing his way clear of his debts is a moot point.

Sen is well-known for his preference for blondes, and in 1972 he married jazz singer Joan Shepherd. The marriage ended 17 years later, and he moved in with a blonde British dancer named Amanda, who has since borne him four children. Sadly, in addition to his financial troubles, he has had to face problems with his children's health: His six-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia.

At the start of the new year there are some flickers of hope in this poor man-rich man-poor man story. Sen will return to the Koma Theater to do a one-month show in September and at the time of writing, his latest release, "Yume no Shizuku," is in the top ten on the cable radio charts. His luck may just be turning again.

Jean Wilson

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ISSUES 248/9-