SAHOMI TACHIBANA: American legacy of a Japanese dancer

KEEPING CULTURE ALIVE BEHIND BARBED WIRE — Pupils of Sahomi Tachibana, dressed in kimono, seated on stage in the new high school auditorium at the Tule Lake concentration camp on Aug. 23, 1943.
photo courtesy of the Setsuka Hirano Collection, Gerth Special Collections & University Archives, Sacramento State University

Not many people can say their career has lasted nine decades, but for master Japanese classical dancer Sahomi Tachibana, her career in dance spanned 90 years indeed — and so much more. 

“Dance has been my life,” Tachibana said in 2005. “Through this form I like to entertain and teach whatever I can offer.”

Starting at age seven, Nisei Doris Haruno Abey’s passion for Japanese classical dance began with her family’s involvement in a local kabuki theater in Mountain View, Calif. and led her to train as a teenager at the Tachibana School of Dance in Fukushima, Japan.

In 1941 at age 17, young Doris returned to the U.S. under her professional name Sahomi Tachibana aboard the very last ship to leave port before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. 

Soon after, Tachibana and her family found themselves behind barbed wire fences at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif., and later at the Tule Lake camp, also in California, and the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp. 

With dance kimono in hand and little else, Tachibana’s Issei mother suggested she teach Japanese classical dance to Nisei in camp. The problem was many young Nisei weren’t interested in anything Japanese.

“They were more interested in Western-style things,” Tachibana said in Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto’s documentary film, “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performing Arts in the World War II Internment Camps.” “But it was their parents who wanted them to learn something Japanese.”

So when her family ended up at Tule Lake, she taught Japanese dance in the camp barracks. “My students would come every day to practice after school. Just girls. It was fun, and something for them to do.” 

Eventually, Tachibana and her students would perform Japanese classical dance programs in mess halls, where captive audiences would be transformed by dance to another place, and for a couple hours, could forget all about camp. 

“We had to provide our own entertainment in camp,” she said. “There was nothing else.”

After the war, Tachibana moved to New York where she studied modern dance and ballet. But she soon realized Japanese dance was her true calling and went on to perform on Broadway and in 45 states across the country. She also started her own dance company, teaching countless students on both coasts, and continued to perform and teach up until age 95, retiring just two years ago. 

In 2021, she received the Emperor’s Order of the Rising Sun, Silver Rays — Japan’s highest civilian honor.

Koto master and teacher Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto remembers interviewing Tachibana for her film in 2014.

“I found her to be an amazing artist totally devoted to the art of dance, not only Japanese but ballet, modern dance, anything to do with movement,” Muramoto said. “Her students have taken the philosophy and applied it in their own ways as well.”

Now 97 and living in Portland, Ore., Tachibana watched along with over 225 others as her daughter and former students paid tribute to her in a special online program entitled “Sahomi Tachibana: American Legacy of a Japanese Dancer” held March 3.

Sponsored by The Friends of Topaz Museum and NEXTGEN: Geijutsuka, the program was hosted by filmmaker Lauren Kawana and covered Tachibana’s life, and the legacy that lives on through her students.

Tachibana’s daughter, Elaine Werner, announced that Tachibana will donate numerous items used in camp performances to the Topaz Museum. Items include a wooden samurai sword, a Japanese doll and mask and an autograph book filled with drawings and signatures from her fellow camp inmates. 

Former student Tomie Hahn remembered taking Japanese dance from Tachibana as a 6-year-old in New York. 

“I remember being at class every Saturday, and being mesmerized just sitting there and watching her,” said Hahn. “She has a presence that is so powerful. And she conveyed this to us in her lessons. She would narrate what it is she wanted us to do, where to look, what to see. I remember this from six years old, and it’s still with me.” 

Wynn Kiyama, a former student and executive director of Portland Taiko, started his lessons with Tachibana sensei later in life, and later in her life, after she had moved to Portland. 

“She was a master storyteller with her body,” Kiyama said. “My favorite memory is when she scared me so much with just a look. We were talking about where your vision has to be, and she looked at me with these crazed eyes. They pierced not only me, but 100 yards beyond me. Her presence is so big. Even though she’s not a big person, her presence is gigantic on stage.” 

Kirk Kanesaka, a student who became the first person outside of Japan to be accepted as a professional kabuki dancer, remembered how Tachibana would combine Japanese and Western dance techniques with powerful results.

“She would lower her stance, and her energy is exploding outwards,” said Kanesaka. “You can feel her power. And when she taught us, she’s explaining everything. She would tell us about the story, and what we should be feeling and how we should bring the story alive for the audience.”

For Tomie Hahn, she learned how to think outside the box, and to believe in something bigger.

“I can honestly say Sahomi-sensei changed my life,” Hahn said. “At six years old. That passion and ingenuity gets lodged in your body very seriously. That idea that you can do anything. You can be anyone. A young boy. A monk. A monkey. And I believed her

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