Japanese dance teacher who brought joy to WWII inmates remains active at 99

Fujima Kansuma, now 99, used to teach Japanese classical dance in the Rowher, Ark. concentration camp. photo courtesy of Miyako Tachibana

LOS ANGELES — Fujima Kansuma, the legendary Japanese dancer who taught several thousand students in a career that has spanned nearly eight decades, participated in a little-known part of history when she overcame obstacles to share her art with Japanese American inmates during World War II.

When hostilities erupted between America and Japan, resulting in the incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in U.S. concentration camps, Kansuma and her family were imprisoned at a camp in Rohwer, Ark. Although locked up behind barbed wire fences, she still managed to perform and teach traditional Japanese dance in the camps.

For Kansuma, who was born Sumako Hamaguchi in San Francisco in 1918 and had moved with her parents to Los Angeles at age three, an interest in Japanese dance came about because she was a sickly child, revealed her daughter, Miyako Tachibana (Fujima Kansuzu). Their family physician encouraged Sumako’s parents to find an exercise routine to improve her health.

Heeding the doctor’s advice, her parents arranged for Sumako to study Japanese dance.

Sumako began to study kabuki in Los Angeles at age nine, and soon joined Shojo Kabuki, an all-girls kabuki group that went to perform in Hawai‘i where they were very well received. With the experience of training with Shojo Kabuki and going to Hawai‘i to perform, Sumako was getting quite accomplished in Nihon buyo and kabuki buyo, Tachibana said.

The next step in her career, with her parents’ support, was to train with the best artists in Japan. Accompanied by her mother, Sumako traveled to Tokyo to learn kabuki from the legendary master Onoe Kikugoro VI, and dancing from Kikugoro’s teacher, Fujima Kanjuro.

The training in Japan in the mid-1930s, was “very intense, very grueling,” Tachibana said. “Everyone training with Kikugoro was very serious. Once a dancer entered that school in Japan, there was no question she was going to become a natori (dance master).”

Nisei Becomes Natori
Sumako learned the basics of the Fujima-style of Japanese dance, as well as acting and makeup, and how to play the shamisen (stringed musical instrument) and tsuzumi (Japanese drum). After four years of rigorous training, she earned her natori with the stage name, Fujima Kansuma, in 1938.

Kansuma returned to Los Angeles and opened a dance studio at her father’s hotel. She started performing and was quite well received, Tachibana noted. “As a result of her performances, people would ask her to teach them and their daughters. As she performed, she started teaching.”

June Aochi Berk, who studied Japanese dance under Fujima Kansuma from 1938 to 1942, stated, “I didn’t have any formal lessons, but loved to wear the kimono and dance. My father was a teacher of gidayu (singing or narration of kabuki stories), and so my family was involved in the Japanese kabuki theater here in Los Angeles.”

Kansuma’s students performed all over the Los Angeles area, Berk recalled. “I remember dancing at the Hollywood Bowl when I was about seven years old. We also danced on the Japanese Navy ships that came to San Pedro and docked there. The Japanese sailors would often come into Little Tokyo and the ladies of the Koyasan Buddhist Temple would gather together to cook a very special dinner for them.”

The times when Kansuma danced while she was teaching her students were “unbelievably magical,” remembered Berk. “All of us students used to just sit in awe of her as she danced and taught us how to dance. We would each wait for our turn to have her teach us. And we sat there in awe of her as she performed for us.”

Nikkei Incarcerated
With the outbreak of World War II, Fujima Kansuma was incarcerated with her family, first at Santa Anita Assembly Center, then in the Rohwer concentration camp. Many former students discovered that Kansuma was there and asked camp officials to allow them to resume dance lessons with her.

The camp administrator, a missionary, arranged for Kansuma to perform at various Christian campuses in America, “like a goodwill ambassador between Japan and America,” Tachibana explained. “My mother gave a very positive representation of Japan because she was very artistic, very poised, and she looked harmless.”

Soon, Kansuma was allowed to perform and teach Japanese dance, reportedly to about 40 students between the ages of nine to 16 at Rowher. Eventually, she was performing and teaching at other camps, including at Poston, Ariz., her daughter related.

The inmates made “a beautiful stage” for all the dancers to perform, Tachibana divulged. “For the Tange Sazen production, my mother and grandmother made the costume from the bed sheets at camp. Two of the dances that were very well received in the camps were ‘Urashima’ and ‘Tange Sazen,’ which featured the kind of message that lifted up people’s spirits at a low time in their lives.”

The Aochi family was incarcerated at the Rohwer camp in 1942, so Berk was reunited with her teacher. “We both lived in the same camp, and again I took lessons from her,” she said. “We traveled to Jerome, Ark,. and I remember that in Rohwer, we had to dance almost every weekend.”

Fujima Kansuma had many suitors in camp, Berk revealed. “She was of marriage age, and many men wanted to marry her, but I think her mother made them all keep their distance … Mrs. Hamaguchi was very protective of her beautiful young daughter.”

Kansuma’s legacy is the “unbelievable joy” she brought to the camp residents, “when they were most depressed and sad,” Berk declared. “It was her dancing and teaching that brought up the morale of the people in the camps, especially the older Issei who looked forward to her dancing. It was the only thing of beauty and joy in camp.”

“I will always remember her dancing,” Berk declared. “She was a vision of beauty in one dance. Then she was the incredible one-eyed, one-armed surly bandit samurai; she gave an unbelievable performance as Tange Sazen. She was magical.”

Kansuma Still Teaching
When the war ended, Kansuma and her family moved to Denver, and the Aochi family also came to Denver. “I studied under her again. So I think the last time I danced with her was when I was 20 years old,” said Berk. “My memories are filled with the images of the beautiful dancing of Osho-san (our teacher).”

Kansuma-sensei has always been a source of inspiration, Berk emphasized. “She danced for the community to enjoy her, whether it was in Los Angeles, or in the concentration camps, or after the war. She was giving her life to having people enjoy odori (Japanese dancing).”

Fujima Kansuma soon returned home to Los Angeles and resumed teaching and performing. In her career, she has taught more than 2,000 students, and 48 of her students have achieved natori status. She still conducts classes twice a week at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.

“Her mind is still sharp … she’s amazing,” Tachibana exclaimed. “In a few months she’ll be 99, and she looks like she’s 70-something … She’s slowed down but still does everything she did when she was young, and she is as passionate and as committed as ever to her artistry.”

Rare, Passionate Teacher
Melody Takata, who previously served an apprenticeship under Fujima Kansuma and has resumed training with her, stated via e-mail that her sensei (teacher) “is masterful at her practice and is excellent at bringing out the best in her dancers.”

Takata, director of GenRyu Arts at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown, added that Kansuma-sensei is “a very rare and passionate teacher who gives everything to her students.”
Kansuma is “legendary for the performances she gave (in the camps) because it deeply touched the souls of many,” Takata pointed out.

Critical to JA Identity
Leslie Ito, president of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, stated that the work of Fujima Kansuma “is critical to our identity as Japanese Americans, whether we participate in odori or not. The retention of the cultural arts and the passing down from generation to generation is significant. We must do all we can to encourage, nurture and support masters like Madame Kansuma, whether it is odori, ikebana, shodo, chado or the traditional musical instruments.”

“The fact that these cultural forms have survived through wartime cultural deprivation, through generations of American assimilation, shows the power and resilience of Japanese arts and culture,” she added.

Honors and Awards
In 1985, the Japanese government awarded Fujima Kansuma the Order of the Precious Crown, Apricot. The National Endowment for the Arts also recognized her in 1987 as a National Heritage Fellow for the Arts, America’s highest award honoring traditional artists. And in 2004, Mme. Kansuma was presented the Japanese American National Museum’s Cultural Ambassador Award.

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