By TOMOKO NAGAI, Rafu Staff Writer
Kikusue Azuma, a shihan (instructor) with Azuma Ryū, has been leading the Azuma School in the U.S. since they lost their sensei, Sumako Azuma II (Janice Aiso Edesa), who passed in 2020 after a courageous 24-year battle with brain and spinal cancer.
Kikusue, who lives in Hawai‘i on Kaua‘i Island, has been flying to Los Angeles once a month for years for intensive weekend lessons that run three hours per student group. However, to prepare her dancers for the Nisei Week Opening Ceremony on July 17, she devoted three weeks to perfect their dances. By the time of the Grand Parade on Aug. 14, she will have devoted eight weeks total to prepare her group of dancers for the parade.
How did you start dancing?
My parents are originally from Hawai‘i, but I grew up in Los Angeles. I started dancing in 1969 when I was nine years old. My parents enrolled me in a class at St. Mary’s Church because there was a teacher, Azuma Sumako I, who was teaching there.
I am Yonsei on my dad’s side, as his mom (my grandmother) was born in Hilo, Hawai‘i. I am Sansei on my mom’s side. The first to come to Hawai‘i from Japan was my dad’s grandpa in 1886. My dad’s family is from Itsukaichi, Hiroshima-ken, and my mom’s family is Iwakuni, Yamaguchi-ken.
Both of my parents really liked Japanese culture but their families were very poor. Growing up on the sugar plantations in Hawai‘I, they did not have a chance to learn dance, karate, kendo, or any type of Japanese culture. So when the opportunity was here in California, they enrolled their children in Japanese cultural arts to make sure we knew about Japanese culture. I am the oldest of five children. My two sisters also enrolled in dance, and my brother enrolled in judo.
What was your impression of your first Japanese dance lesson?
I loved my Japanese dance lessons as a kid. I loved wearing kimono. I couldn’t understand my teacher, Azuma Sumako I, because she spoke only Japanese. I just copied but I didn’t really understand what she was saying to me.
I remember when I was in middle school I wanted to quit because none of my other friends took Japanese dance. My mom said, “If you want to quit you have to tell your sensei yourself.” I never could get the courage to tell my sensei, so I kept taking dance lessons. And then when I was in high school I realized that I loved it! So it was a good thing that I didn’t quit.
My teacher passed away when I was 14, and her daughter, Janice Aiso – Sumako Azuma II, who at that time had the natori name Harusuma – was only 16. Janice was asked to take over her mom’s school, which was challenging, as she was just a teenager and she didn’t have her shihan degree yet. The younger students stayed with her and she did her best at giving us dance lessons. A few years later she traveled to Japan and became uchideshi (live-in apprentice) for a year and earned her **shihan** degree. Then when she came back, I was so happy because I loved dancing and could take lessons from her again.
Sumako is a year and a half older than me. Although we had different talents – I ended up going to college and becoming an engineer and she ended up working in insurance – we also had a lot in common. We bonded through dancing for many, many years.
What you remember about your first stage performance?
The first stage performance was a small recital at St. Mary’s Church. My first dance was “Tsukihime-sama” (Moon Princess). I danced with my sister and two other girls. We loved the kimono, it was light blue and silver and it was very beautiful.
I was 13 when I had my first real recital with oshiroi (white make-up) on a big stage. That was when Harusuma just received her natori (master) degree. I danced “Sarashime,” the women rinsing silks at the river, with the long ribbons in my hands. I enjoyed that performance.
As a dancer I was not naturally talented, but I tried very hard. Over the years, Sumako II taught me many classical techniques, and I just tried my best. She was an amazing teacher. Although she was naturally talented, and could learn steps so easily, she could still explain techniques to beginners like me. It took me a very long time but she was very patient with me. Without her patience, I would not be what I am now. She was an amazing person.
When was the moment you decided to keep on going with your dance career?
I was 21, and I was about to get my bachelor’s degree. I remember keeping a journal and writing, “What am I gonna do with my life?” I wrote: “I want to keep going with dancing and become natori, and maybe someday become shihan, because I love Nihon buyō and I love Janice (my sensei).” Right after that, she actually started the natori training class, so I was able to accomplish my goals.
I’ve been with Janice (Sumako II) since I was 14 or 15 years old. Even though she lost her mom so young, she did her best to try to preserve her mom’s legacy. After her uchideshi year, when she trained with Azuma Tokuho, a famous dance master in Japan, she said she could never quit teaching because she has so much knowledge and she needs to share it.
I have been to Japan many times for dance-related purposes, but I have never lived there. I wished I could, but I had a regular job, then I had my babies. We went to Japan for a couple of weeks at a time while training for my shihan degree, and then I also performed at the 70th anniversary of Azuma School at National Theater in Tokyo. Sumako-sensei was always with me and helped me understand what people were saying. I finally went to Japan by myself in 2018, and it was fine. It is hard for me to say words in Japanese but I can understand some of what people are saying.
I became natori at age 24, and shihan at age 38. During my 20s and early 30s, I was Sumako’s assistant. At performances, I would help her organize the program and I learned how to dress the dancers. Then, when I was in my later 30s, I decided to study for shihan. I passed the exam when I was 38. It was later in my life, but I could finally leave my children for a longer trip, as my youngest child was then three years old.
After I came back from Japan, I had five local children whose parents wanted them to take dance lessons in Thousand Oaks, where I lived at the time. Through word-of-mouth, that class of five kids grew to 20 kids within the first year. I had a little recital in 2000 and every year it keeps growing. At the last recital before the pandemic, I had 65 students.
My recitals are usually in Ventura County at Thousand Oaks High School. It’s a beautiful performing arts center with professional lighting, so it helps students get an authentic dancing experience. We use oshiroi for the classical numbers and more casual make-up for the younger kids. It’s always a lot of fun and Sumako-sensei has always supported my recitals over the years.
In 2018, she performed a very short section of “Kimigayo Sho Chiku Bai.” She had a koken (stage supporter) behind her because of balance problems due to her brain cancer, but she was very steady and danced beautifully. I’m so happy I asked her to dance because that ended up being her final stage performance.
Moving on to 2020-2021, I was amazed that even during the pandemic, none of my students quit. We took a year-and-a-half break but in 2021, I started teaching again. For 2022, I am preparing a virtual recital instead of an in-person recital. I took videos of my students, and I’m creating a YouTube playlist. It is the best we can do this year to keep everyone safe during the pandemic, and we hope we can have a regular in-person recital in 2023.
How do you keep up with your students?
Every month, I fly in from Kaua‘i and teach for three days. There are three-hour lesson segments all day, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Kaua‘i, I have 15 students, who I teach every week. As long as I am healthy enough to fly, I will continue. I am the only Azuma shihan living in the U.S. at the moment. I hope to eventually train another shihan to take my place. But for now, I just love teaching. I love that the kids have a cultural connection.
Regarding continuing Sumako-sensei’s school, I have reached out to Sumako-sensei’s natori. Some of them are busy with their lives and cannot continue, but five of Sumako’s natori will come back and dance in the parade. Additionally, in 2023 we hope we can prepare a recital with all other natori in memory of Sumako-sensei.
Regarding my own students’ development: I have one natori of my own and currently have a class of four who are training for the natori exam. They hope to go to Japan next summer to take their exams. We are going to be very busy in 2023.
What is your fondest memory of Nisei Week?
Our group first took part in Nisei Week in 1971 when I was 11 years old. This was with Sumako-sensei’s mother, Azuma Sumako I. I loved the parade and I remember thinking that we looked so good being part of a large group, with our osensu (folding fans) flipping together, everyone raised their hands together, seeing how together we looked. In the parade it’s not about the individual, but rather it’s a team effort. I remember also that my feet were very sore. The parade was twice as long back then, and I was only 11. I remember being exhausted, but I loved it.
We did the parade almost every year even after Sumako-sensei’s mother passed, and then in the 1980s, they asked us to do it only every other year because there were so many groups back then. In the 1980s they started the closing ceremony and the street ondo dance and the Azuma group has taken part every year since then.
Every few years a group takes turns in choreography. We were supposed to be the lead group in 2018 but we were asked to wait one more year as Fujima Kansuma turned 100, so we said okay, no problem, and then the pandemic happened.
We chose this year’s dances in memory of Azuma Sumako, as these are her favorite choreographies. She choreographed “Kawachi Otoko Bushi” in 1994 and “One Wish” in 2008. The band Hiroshima gave us a special cut of the “One Wish” music for the parade.
I was talking with some other natori about which dances represented Sumako-sensei the best. Lots of people love “Kawachi Otoko Bushi” because it is so lively, and “One Wish” because she danced a lot with the Hiroshima group. Sumako-sensei loved to blend the traditional Japanese culture with modern influences. She felt it helped to reach the younger generations better. I also find that to be true as I am able to reach the younger generations by teaching classical dance techniques and using more modern music.
When it is Azuma’s next turn to be the lead group, I am looking forward to choreographing new dances. For this year I really wanted to honor Sumako-sensei as this is our first opportunity to publicly honor her.
What is the focal point of the choreography this year?
“One Wish” is very dramatic at one point, and “Kawachi Otoko Bushi” I remember Sumako-sensei said to dance “everything sharp, sharp, sharp.” She wanted all uchiwa (round fans) to move together. Sumako-sensei always said that “This is not a stage dance, this is a parade. So if you’re having fun, please share that with the audience. It’s okay to smile. If you’re having fun, let the audience know and they will enjoy it.” She always wanted us to share our heart with the audience. “No matter if you’re dancing on the stage or on the street, please share your heart and you can truly touch the audience.”
From my group, I am going to have 48 Azuma School dancers for the parade. We are expecting at least eight dance schools participating in the parade, and we will have some general public attending.
Starting Aug. 2, I am going to teach at the public practice at JACCC plaza. Usually there’s a good crowd, like 75 or so, and they all love dancing, It is fun to teach because they’re very enthusiastic.
What is the joy of dancing?
Sumako-sensei said it’s always important to share your heart and emotion with the audience. When we dance, the part I love the most is sharing the happiness of dancing, sharing the joy of dancing.
If you would ask me what I would love about teaching, I love Japanese culture so much and I just love sharing it with the younger generation. I write a monthly children’s column for The Hawai‘i Herald, a newspaper based in Hawai‘i that has news about their local Japanese community. My column is called “Culture4Kids!” and this is my 17th year writing it.
Seven years ago, they asked me to put my favorite columns into a Japanese culture book. In 2020, we wrote another book that is about favorite Japanese children’s stories. My sister Kim Kubota, who is also an Azuma natori, is an artist, so she provided drawings for my book. At the end of each story, there is a craft, game or puzzle that helps teach some of the culture to the children.
I used to be an engineer but I now realize that being a teacher is what I was really meant to be. I really love dancing and teaching.
Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo