Sacramento group preserves Japanese folk dancing and music

DANCE ON — Toshiye Kawamura (front, left) and Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai rehearse at the Nisei War Memorial in Sacramento, Calif. photo by Heather Ito/
Nichi Bei Weekly

Through its long history, with roots dating back to the late 1940s, the Sacramento, Calif.-based Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai has gone through a few changes, but its core remains the same: a love for traditional Japanese arts.

Known now for its Japanese folk dancing and music, the group wasn’t always primarily made up of dancers. At its origins, the group that was formed shortly after World War II was made up of Issei women who wanted to sing together.

The Yamato Gekidan, as they would eventually call themselves, would sometimes ­— perhaps for nearby children to watch — occasionally put on drama shows, but they sang mainly to entertain themselves, according to current Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai lead instructor Toshiye Kawamura.

While wearing beautiful kimono and evening gowns, the Issei women sang only with the orchestrated accompaniment of songs on a recording, and not to live music.

As the years passed, the Yamato Gekidan would be joined by folk dancers, but at some point the group that would become the Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai separated from the Yamato Gekidan. Kawamura said she is not sure exactly when this happened, since it happened before she joined the group in 1984.

After its separation from the Yamato Gekidan, the new group performed under a different name until a legal incident in the 1980s forced the group to lose all the money they had in their treasury. After that, the group began to restore its funds by applying for grants (of which Kawamura was skilled at from being the Music Department secretary at California State University, Sacramento) and putting on shows under the group’s new name: Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai.

After the loss of their dance teacher, another member stepped up to take over until she could no longer continue. Then, she asked Kawamura to become the next lead dance instructor. Although the now 85-year-old Kawamura felt that someone else with more experience should take over, the member said she was the only one who knew all the dances.

Later, when their dance teacher from San Francisco and their singing teacher from San Jose died, Kawamura said she did her best to keep the group of 25 Issei and Nisei going.

“So there we were, stuck with no teachers, and we just had to carry on so I did the best I could with the dances that I knew,” said Kawamura, a Sansei who began dancing when she was 5 years old.

In the early 2000s, Kawamura invited a friend and folk dance teacher from Japan to teach them new routines. Ryoichi Oikawa visited the group in April for three years between 1999 and 2001 and taught them 10 new routines, some of which they still use today. Kawamura also enjoys practicing dance outside of Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai.

“I am kind of nuts about this dancing thing so I try to learn from as many teachers as I could,” she said.

In addition to folk dancing, the Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai incorporates singing and live music into their performances when possible. In particular, the group has had members play the shamisen (stringed musical instrument). These shamisen-playing members have come and gone, and Kawamura said she would play now if she hadn’t lost strength in her hand.

Now leading a group of 15 dancers, Kawamura said she likes being with this “very good bunch of people” who “really enjoy the act of dancing.”

Sansei dancer Claire Yee said she saw Kawamura perform with the group during a concert with the Sacramento Taiko Dan, of which Yee was a member.

“I really loved the flare of the traditional dancing that (Kawamura) does,” said the eight-year member.

“Sansei-han” dancer Jenny Takahashi joined the group about 17 years ago and said that being able to dance in Sacramento, Calif. “felt good from within” and allowed her to be reconnected with her culture through the clothing, music and camaraderie of dance.

“It was just a nice, rich environment for me,” she said.

Mixed-race Sansei-han Audry Nishi joined Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai in 2006 and is one of the youngest members of the group now (along with her younger sister Blythe). A dancer and soon-to-be secretary for the group, the 20-year-old Nishi said she grew to like practicing traditional Japanese folk dance.

“After (a) couple of years, I actually began to like it because when I didn’t go to it, I felt like I was missing something,” she said. The graceful moves, the meaning behind each dance and how it illustrates characteristics of Japanese culture are just a few of her favorite things about being a member of this group.

The Nishis’ oldest sister Darcy also joined in 2006 as a dancer, but transitioned to a shamisen (stringed Japanese musical instrument) player and continued to play while she was an active member. Now, the 22-year-old University of California, Davis graduate lives in Japan and is working toward her master’s in economics at Saitama University.

Nishi said that out of the five instruments she plays, the shamisen is her favorite because of its direct association with her Japanese heritage.

“Being a part of Sakura Minyo taught me to look at performing arts as more than just art, but as a tool for cultural awareness,” said Nishi, who plans to continue playing the shamisen.

There were more young members in the Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai, including 2012 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Community Service Scholarship winner Lindsey Anne Keiko Wong, but they left when they entered college. Audry and Blythe Nishi, however, commute to practice each week while they attend UC Davis.

Nisei Sakaye Takabayashi, who has been a dancer with the Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai for 14 years, said there is a “whole spectrum of ages” with the Nishi sisters in the group.

“You don’t see too many groups where you have the young folks and the, ahem, old folks,” she added with a laugh. Takabayashi said having young people in the group allows them to carry on the tradition.

Sharing this part of Japanese culture is important to Sansei (and a quarter) dancer Keiko Makishima, who joined the group 14 years ago. Diversity is also important, Maikishima said, especially now “with all this Trump stuff going on.”

“It’s really nice to be able to express how important diversity is and the culture,” she said.

Yee said she and the rest of the group appreciate Kawamura for being there and teaching them the dance routines. “She remembers them all!”

With instructor Diane Letoto teaching and directing the group this year, Kawamura said she will be able to dance on stage at the Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco at least one more time.

“Next year, I might be too frail to dance on the stage,” she said with a laugh. After more than three decades, Kawamura said she is “grateful for seeing the group evolve into what it has become” and for the woman who “have stuck with me all these years.”

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