Fujima Kansuma Kai’s newest natori Christine Shimahara (left) and Kristin Megumi Toyota (right), and Miyako Tachibana celebrate the beloved dance teacher’s 103rd birthday on May 8. (Photos courtesy of Toyo Miyatake Studio)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

In a most difficult year, a remarkable classical Japanese dance instructor, Madame Fujima Kansuma, awarded natori status to her 49th and 50th students, Kristin Megumi Toyota and Christine Shimahara.

Kansuma, known fondly as Osho-san by her many students, awarded the status in a small ceremony on May 8 in Santa Monica. The ceremony coincided with Kansuma’s 103rd birthday.

The status of natori is earned by those who have shown dedication in their Nihon buyo studies, as well as successfully passing an examination in which an austere dance is perfomed and precise execution is observed. Such a dance can only be refined after many years of disciplined study.

“It all miraculously came together,” Fujima Kansuma’s daughter, Miyako Tachibana, said with admiration.

Toyota is the daughter of Angie Ayako Toyota and the late Craig Toyota of Montebello. Her mother is a shihan natori of Madame Kansuma and her grandmother Imoto Hoshunjyu is a teacher of Japanese folk dance. She attended Polytechnic and Futures Academy and is majoring in business management, pursuing a career in the music business.

She began her studies with Kansuma Sensei when she was seven years old and has performed at community events such as Fiesta Matsuri at the JACCC, Keiro Day and Madame Kansuma’s 100th birthday celebration at the JACCC. She received the dance name Fujima Kansuen.

Shimahara is the daughter of Craig and Lorraine Shimahara of Santa Monica. She is a graduate of Santa Monica High School, where she was selected to be an American ambassador to Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture. She also sang with her upper ensemble choir at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before the devastating fire in 2019.

She is majoring in molecular environmental biology at Berkeley and is planning to go into medicine. She began her study of Nihon buyo when she was eight years old and has performed with her longtime partner Kristin at Keiro Day and Fiesta Matsuri. She received her dance name, Fujima Kansukyou.

Madame Kansuma choreographed the Nisei Week Grand Parade in 2018 when she was 100 years old, but her persistence during COVID-19 may be the one of most impressive achievements in a storied career that extends to before World War II.

“Without question, the cornerstone that kept their journey on course is their beloved Osho-san. Her dedication and commitment to these young ladies was unwavering,” Tachibana said. “Her natoris and students celebrate together with her this incredible milestone of nurturing 50 natoris and congratulate her and these two promising young dancers.”

The pandemic presented incredible challenges for teachers and students.

Toyota and Shimahara had been practicing at the Fujima Kansuma Kai dance studio in the JACCC until it closed last March.

“We didn’t practice for a few months, up until the summertime,” Toyota explained. “It was a lot of solo practicing by ourselves at our houses. We tried Zoom practices but it was very difficult.”

With masks on, the dancers gathered in Tachibana’s backyard. Once everyone received their vaccines, they returned to the dance studio.

Shimahara, Toyota, Tachibana and Kansuma sit for a formal portrait with their new names and menjo (teaching certificates).

Toyota said that attaining her natori status has been a lifelong goal. She expressed appreciation to be able to receive the status from Osho-san and the two newest natori are looking forward to continuing to learn new dances.

She said that Madame Kansuma often shares stories of the hardships in the camps. During the war, she and her family were first sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center and then to the concentration camp in Rohwer, Ark. In camp, her teaching and dance performances would be a source of inspiration.

“Osho-san is always talking about how you have to be a good person in order to be a good dancer,” Toyota said. “She talks about how your character shows through your dance because there’s a lot of feeling in the dance. You have to have that charm and grace within you in order to be a better dancer.”

— Additional reporting by MIE ASO/Rafu Shimpo

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