Odori ‘rock star’ Fujima Kansuma dies at 104

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

Fujima Kansuma 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 thousands of students in a career that spanned nearly eight decades, died on Feb. 22 at 104.

Miyako Tachibana, Kansuma’s daughter, who took over her mother’s teaching duties, stated via e-mail that when her father died when Tachibana was 12 years old, “my mother became a single mom raising two young children. I know life was not easy. I saw first-hand how hard she had to work as an artist, teacher, dancer and choreographer. Life would have been impossible without her, and I am grateful to have had her love for so many years.”

Tachibana, 72, now retired, said she started Japanese dancing lessons when she was three years old. “At age three it felt more like play, but at some time in your development as a dancer, you begin to understand it’s serious business. My mother definitely set the bar high. She expected our best.”

She described her mother as “a captivating dancer who inhabits her characters so well and her movements can be so realistic they become unforgettable. Her range is quite remarkable. From drama to comedy to tearjerkers, she does it all!”

Dance for Health
Madame Kansuma, born Sumako Hamaguchi in San Francisco in 1918, was brought to Los Angeles by her parents when she was three. She was a sickly child whose parents sent her to Japanese dance classes hoping exercise would improve her health. She began studying kabuki in Los Angeles at nine and joined an all-girls kabuki group that went to perform in Hawai‘i. Gaining experience from that Hawai‘i performance, Sumako became quite accomplished in Nihon buyo and kabuki buyo, said Tachibana, who added that Sumako traveled with her mother to Tokyo to learn kabuki and dancing from legendary masters Onoe Kikugoro VI, and Fujima Kanjuro, and returned home as a natori (dance master).

During World War II, when the United States government incarcerated 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry, Madame Kansuma and her family were imprisoned at a concentration camp in Rohwer, Ark. Although the Nikkei were locked up behind barbed wire fences and guarded by armed soldiers, Kansuma was allowed to perform and teach Japanese dance, reportedly to about 40 students between the ages of nine to 16 at Rohwer. Eventually, she was allowed to leave confinement and gained permission to perform and teach Japanese dance at other camps, her daughter reported.

Kansuma returned home to Los Angeles after the war and resumed teaching and performing in Little Tokyo. In her career, she taught more than 2,000 students, and 48 of her students have achieved natori status.

Odori Rock Star
June Aochi Berk, 90, Nisei Week Queen in 1954, recalled, in a telephone interview, taking odori lessons from Kansuma as a five-year-old before World War II.

“She was quite a teacher, a very beautiful person inside and out. I would say she was the kindest person I have ever met.” But she added that Kansuma was “a demanding teacher, such a perfectionist, that she would not let you sit down until you got it done correctly. Even if we were crying, she would not let us stop. But through all of that strictness, she was the kindest person I ever met … She only wanted us to become better persons … I felt very privileged that I did get to see her perform before the war, during the war, during camp days, and also … after the war.”

Kansuma’s legacy is the “unbelievable joy” she brought to the wartime inmates. “I have heard that men would cry when they watched her dance because she was so beautiful and her dances brought back memories of old Japan. In camp, I would say she was a rock star … You would think that being in camp was like being in prison, and yet she danced for the community to enjoy odori.”

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, Kansuma was presented the Japanese American National Museum’s Cultural Ambassador Award.

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