Molly Kimura, last known licensed biwa instructor in U.S., passes at 92

Molly Kimura. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

Molly Kimura. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly
Molly Kimura. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

Miyako Molly Kimura, the last known licensed teacher of the biwa (Japanese lute) in the United States, peacefully passed away May 12, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif. at the age of 92. She was born March 1, 1924 to Nobujiro and Motoyo Nakamura in Yuba City, Calif.

The Nichi Bei Weekly previously reported that the Nisei musician began taking biwa lessons when she was 9 years old. Kimura learned to play the pear-shaped chikuzen biwa and took the instrument with her to the Tule Lake, Calif. concentration camp when she and some 120,000 other people of Japanese decent were incarcerated during World War II in U.S. concentration camps. After the war, she went on to receive a teaching license from the Chikuzen Biwa Nihon Tachibana Kai in 1958 and was considered to be the only known certified biwa teacher in the United States at the time of her death.

While known for playing the Japanese lute, Kimura was also accomplished in the community as a teacher and leader, especially in promoting Japanese cultural arts. She was a certified instructor of the Ikenobo School of Ikebana and was the co-founder of the Sacramento chapter of Ikebana International, founded in 1959. She also held a teaching certificate for suna-e (sand painting) from the Yoshikawa School in Tokyo. She was an active member of Sacramento’s sister city relationships with Matsuyama, Japan and Jinan, China. She also served as the first woman president of the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin Kai from 2002 to 2013 as well as a president of the Sacramento Senator Lions Club from 2004 to 2005.

For her contributions to teaching and maintaining Japanese cultural traditions and promoting international exchange, Kimura was awarded a Foreign Minister’s Commendation  in 2011 by then Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata.

According to Rinban Bob Oshita of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento, Kimura and her family were deeply involved in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in the Sacramento Valley. Oshita said her parents were among the founding families of the Marysville Buddhist Church, which began as a branch of Sacramento’s church. Kimura, Oshita said, received her Tokudo and was ordained as a Buddhist minister in 1995 at the age of 70 in Kyoto. “She wanted very much to receive that first level of ordination and went forward with it,” he said. Prior to that, Kimura had already been teaching at the temple’s dharma school when Oshita arrived in 1984.

“We can’t help but realize we are losing our remarkable Nisei generation,” he said. “Molly was very much an embodiment of her generation. They all came out of the camps with virtually nothing and rebuilt their lives … our community and our temple.”

She is survived by Sylvia and Clifford Kimura, her children. According to her family, Kimura was predeceased by her husband Kazuo Nobujiro and siblings Helen Iwasaki, Katherine Sato and Joe Nakamura.

A service for her was held at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento May 21.

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