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Yasushi Akutagawa studied composition at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music with Kunihiko Hashimoto and Akira Ifukube.
His love of Russian music and composers led him to enter the Soviet Union illegally in 1954 and make friends with Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Kabalevsky. He also became the only Japanese composer to have his music published officially in the Soviet Union, at this time.
He devoted much time to training an amateur orchestra, Shin Kokyo Gakudan ('The New Symphony Orchestra'), and he and the orchestra received the 1976 Suntory Music Award.
Akutagawa died on 31 January 1989, and one year later, the Akutagawa Composition Award was established in his memory.