A celebration of the legacy of minyo teacher Kitsu Mineshizu (Shizuko Uyemura) included song, dance and condolences streamed live from Japan.

By TOMOKO NAGAI, Rafu Staff Writer

TORRANCE — Kitsu Mineshizu (Shizuko Uyemura) was involved in minyo, Japanese folk songs, throughout her life and played a major role in the local minyo world. She passed away on Aug. 10, 2020, at the age of 99.

The farewell gathering, which was not held immediately due to the pandemic, finally took place on May 22 at the Miyako Hybrid Hotel in Torrance. About 30 people, including her family and disciples, celebrated her life by playing the music inherited from her.

Tak Nishi, who is well-known as a Japanese-English bilingual moderator, created numerous shows in the community together with Mineshizu for many years. He opened the event.

Kitsu Mineshizu

“Thanks to Mineshizu Sensei, who has been familiar as a minyo teacher, and the person who devoted all of her life to minyo music. Let’s remember her wonderfulness, and remember her beautiful smile,” he said.

Kitsu Chikurei, the iemoto (great master) of Chikurei-ryu/Kitsu-ryu Minyo, and his successor daughter, Kaori, read aloud condolences live from Japan — at 4 a.m. local time — through an online conference system.

Chikurei, his voice sometimes choking with emotion, looked back on his long-standing friendship with Mineshizu. “Starting from the opening ceremony at Koyasan Hall in 1981, we held countless concerts at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. L.A. Chikurei Kai is an amazing group with about 20 natori (students with stage names given by the iemoto) in the U.S. Mineshizu-san’s achievements in putting together such a group are indescribably great.”

Iemoto Chikurei, who recently received the Minyo Honor Award from the Japan Minyo Association, said, “I am convinced that the honorary award was given to me because it was recognized that we had been engaged in international exchange through minyo for many years. I thank Mineshizu-san for her achievements.”

He added,“I think she had a life that I couldn’t imagine through the war, yet she had an inner strength and brightness.”  He quoted her as saying that even if she was worried about something, she would forget about it when she woke up the next day.

“What Mineshizu-san would have wanted to leave to the Japanese American community through minyo music is the humble but beautiful heart as a Japanese, the importance of harmony with one’s surroundings, and having a cheerful and enjoyable time,” Chikurei said. “I think those are things she was most importantly conscious of. I pray that all the members of the L.A. Chikiurei Kai will work together, with the leadership of her daughter Irene (aka Kitsu Mineshiki) and granddaughter Jennifer (aka Kitsu Minemiki), pursue minyo music, and move forward brightly and cheerfully in the future.”

Mineshizu’s family is carrying on the family legacy of Chikurei Kai. From left: Great-grandsons Aidan Makoto (shamisen, taiko, kane, cello, piano) and Sean Masao in red happi (taiko, kane, guitar, bass, drum — more than 10 instruments altogether); granddaughter Jennifer aka Kitsu Minemiki (shamisen, yokobue, taiko, kane, piano, flute, alto saxophone and more) holding Mineshizu’s picture; great-grandsons Breandan Tadashi (taiko, guitar, bass, kane) and Devon (taiko, kane, drum, bass, guitar, saxophone); and daughter Irene aka Kitsu Mineshiki.

One of Mineshizu’s students, Grace Mizushima (aka Kitsu Minekei), recalled, “I had just graduated from college. Sensei said, ‘You’re done with college. Why don’t you start playing shamisen with your Mom?’ I said, ‘OK.’ I liked the music, so I took it as a challenge. This is how my relationship with Sensei started. As I had other things to do and couldn’t attend the lessons with other ladies, she said, ‘Come to my house!’ and I took one-on-one lessons every Saturday, and she fed me lunch. It was the best minyo lesson I could have ever asked for … I learned a lot from Sensei. Not only about minyo, but Japanese culture, how to act, how to behave as a human being.

“At the beginning, I told Sensei, ‘I am going to learn shamisen, but I do not want to sing.’She said, ‘One of these days you’re going to sing.’‘No, no, Sensei, no.’ I kept putting off, but finally I couldn’t say no anymore, so Sensei made me sing! I enjoyed it, and I am still continuing after almost 30 years.

“Now I’ve dragged my children into it. My daughter learned shamisen from Sensei when she was so small that she could not reach the top of the shamisen. My son, in high school, began playing shakuhachi. Starting from my mom, it is truly a generational thing. Sensei is part of my life. But … we need to go on. We will cherish memories with her. Be happy, as Sensei said, all the time.”

After the meal, the students played 14 songs they inherited from the late teacher. Two dancers from Kikutakai participated. The invited guests were Matsumae Katsukiyo, chairwoman of Nanka Nihon Minyo Kyokai and iemoto of Minyo Matsumaekai, and its advisor Osamu Matsushita, as well as Yoshikuni Okita, chairman of Southern California  Kumamoto Kenjinkai, who admired Mineshizu as “my American mother who guided me to join Japanese society through the Kenjinkai.”

Kitsu Minekei (Grace Mizushima) shares her memories. Three generations, including her mother Noriko Matsumoto aka Kitsu Minekou, her daughter Kylie and son Justin, are minyo performers in Chikurei Kai. 

The memorial service was conducted by Rev. Junkyo Shaku (Hibiki Murakami) of Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.

Shizuko Uyemura, aka Kitsu Mineshizu, was born on Aug. 4, 1921, in Courtland, Sacramento County, to Sakuhei and Shiki Tsukida. Uyemura and her brothers were sent to Japan for their education, but after completing high school there, she returned to the U.S. to attend school in San Francisco. She went on to obtain a degree in fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco.

In 1942, she met and married her husband, Robert Tadashi Uyemura. Soon after they were married, they were sent to the Gila River internment camp in Arizona. They had two daughters and a son. Uyemura was widowed in 1957. While raising her three children, she worked as a fashion designer in the television and movie industries. She later opened her own design boutique in Beverly Hills. To further advance her designing skills, she attended fashion institutes and design shows in Paris.

After her children were grown, Uyemura was introduced to Kitsu Chikurei, a renowned shakuhachi player and Columbia recording artist. Uyemura went to Japan for three months to study singing and shamisen under Chikurei Sensei. She continued to learn from him by visiting Japan three to four times a year for 45 years.

In 1975, Uyemura began L.A. Chikurei Kai with the approval and support of her teacher. Her mission was to connect younger and older generations through the teaching and learning of Japanese folk music. Her motto was “Keizoku suru koto wa chikara nari,” which means “Perseverance is strength.” She provided her students with free lessons in both shamisen and singing.

Uyemura chose to give free lessons because younger people did not have much money and she wanted to give them the opportunity to learn for enjoyment rather than obligation.

Many of Uyemura’s students were with her for over 40 years. Some are third-generation Chikurei Kai members. Uyemura’s own daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandsons are also part of her group. Her group has performed countless times for various nonprofit organizations’ events in order to expose the community to minyo.

In 1980, Uyemura began volunteering her time through teaching and performing at the Keiro facilities, including South Bay Keiro Nursing Home in Gardena, Keiro Retirement Home in Boyle Heights, and Keiro Nursing Home in Lincoln Heights. Every Friday she offered minyo lessons at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute free of charge. In 2015, Uyemura started volunteering at the Nikkei Pioneer Center, teaching singing and shamisen. She continued to fulfill her mission of bringing Japanese folk music to all generations.

As Uyemura looked back on 40-plus years of volunteer service, she realized that true satisfaction came from giving to others and watching people learn about themselves through the love of music and community service.

Uyemura was actively involved in L.A. Chikurei Kai, Japan Minyo Kyokai, Kenjin Kai Kyogi Kai, Kumamoto Kenjin Kai, Kumamoto Fujin Kai, Nanka Minyo Kyokai, Hyakudo Kai, Bonsai Club, Takasei Kai, JACCC, Gardena Valley JCI, and many other civic organizations.

On Aug. 10, 2020, she passed away peacefully at her home in Torrance, surrounded by her family. She is survived by her three children, Irene, Cathi, and Michael; four grandchildren, Jennifer, Jay-Calvin, Jeffrey, and Marc; and six great-grandchildren, Sean, Aidan, Devon, Breandan, Jody, and Miles.

She was strong and cheerful despite the painful time during the war and later as a single mother, and became a bridge between Japan and the U.S. through her passion, talent and personality.

L.A. Chikurei Kai’s baton has been handed over to the next generations. Irene recalled, “My mother Mineshizu Sensei expected all of us to enjoy all types of music … Boys played taiko at Minyo Kyokai show, Kenjin Kai Kyogi Kai events, etc. They all play musical instruments. Jennifer, Sean and Aidan teach. Music is universal.”

Photos by TOMOKO NAGAI/Rafu Shimpo

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