By SHIRLEY KAZUYO MURAMOTO
In June of this year I received a note from a relative of Yukino Okubo Harada, who taught Japanese classical dance at Amache camp during World War II, that she had died at the age of 100.
About ten years ago I was filming interviews of Japanese cultural artists who practiced their arts in the wartime American concentration camps for a documentary film. Yukino was one of the artists that we interviewed. We became good friends, and she put me in touch with many more artists of the camps whom we interviewed for the documentary “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performing Arts in the WWII Internment Camps” (available for free on YouTube).
I’d been researching information on the subject of Japanese performing arts in the camps for decades since I found out my mom learned to play the koto as a 10-year-old at Topaz and Tule Lake.
There had been no information in history books about this at the time. The only other info about recreational activities in the camps was of swing bands and baseball and other American cultural things. I wanted to find out if there had been others who practiced Japanese arts in the camps.
During my search I found a phonebook put out by a Little Tokyo business group in L.A. Looking through the directory, I found the name Kineya JyoRokusho in the Japanese arts teachers section. I called the phone number and JyoRokusho Sensei answered.
I advised that I was looking for artists who taught Japanese arts in the camps, and she replied that she taught students at Gila River camp in Arizona. This was in 2009, and she was already 90 years old. Most of the people that I tracked down were Nisei and already in their 80s and 90s. I was determined to record these interviews as soon as possible. I could find no Issei artists who were still alive.
I tried to get funding for this research but was told by organizations funding research about the camps that they would not fund music or dance because they didn’t want people to think they had a “good time” in camp.
The idea that these activities were organized to help people survive in camp by having something to occupy their time in these remote desert areas was not considered. It was for their sanity and mental health, just like we needed when we were confined to our homes during the lockdown of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The camp administrators also realized that having people in the camps involved with these activities would help keep the camp environment calm.
But there was stigma for the people who did Japanese arts, as they were considered the arts of “the enemy.” This brought some distrust towards them. I feel those who practiced the Japanese arts were brave to do so in the camps, but it’s another reason why it was so difficult to find these stories.
Yukino Okubo Harada taught Japanese classical dance or Nihon buyō at Amache/Granada in Colorado and Kineya JyoRokusho taught nagauta shamisen, koto and odori dance at Gila River. They both had strong ties to the Japanese American community in Los Angeles, both learning their traditional arts in the Little Tokyo area.
Yukino Harada was born in Los Angeles and learned Japanese dance in Little Tokyo from kabuki and dance teachers such as Miyazaki Dansho, Kineya Kimio, and Fujima Kansuma. Although JyoRokusho Sensei was born in Seattle she moved to Little Tokyo at 6 years old, she spent most of her life young life in Little Tokyo learning dance and music from Nakamura Rakuko (koto) and Kineya Yasoyo (nagauta shamisen) and odori dance.
They both had connections to the famous dancer and teacher Fujima Kansuma. Yukino had been a student of Kansuma Sensei from before the camp days and was a loyal student to her throughout her life.
Yukino told an interesting story of how during the time she was at Amache, she had come to a point where she taught all the dances she knew. She asked the Amache camp administrators if she could travel to Rohwer camp in Arkansas, where Kansuma Sensei was incarcerated, to learn a few more dances from her and then return to Amache afterwards. She was given permission, and so she traveled to Rohwer to learn the dances.
Yukino was there during the Obon season as well, so she led some of the dances. She was about 20 years old at this time, traveling by herself on the train. I asked her if she had taken notes while she was there, and she said she had not because they learned everything by memory in those days. In turn, Fujima Kansuma later traveled to Amache to perform with Yukino.
JyoRokusho Sensei, who had not attained her official certifications until after the war, was teaching and performing at Gila River camp in Arizona. At one time, Fujima Kansuma traveled to Gila River and performed with JyoRokusho Sensei, accompanying her on shamisen. JyoRokusho Sensei said that her favorite dance Kansuma Sensei performed was “Urashima Taro,” a story similar to “Rip Van Winkle.”
Kineya JyoRokusho continued to perform with Fujima Kansuma, especially in “Urashima Taro,” for many years even after the war.
Students of both Kineya JyoRokusho and Yukino Harada had similar comments about learning odori and music from them. They noted that as teachers, both were so strict that students were afraid of them, yet they were also kind.
One of Yukino Okubo Harada’s students at Amache was Mariko “Mar” Shimada Nakata. She said that Yukino was very modest, but powerful. Mar, who was about 12 years old in camp, said Yukino was like a celebrity, like Gloria Swanson on the stage.
Students said that learning the arts in this way taught them not only the art but also discipline and how to be well-mannered, and that because of this training they became better people.
I have a “six degrees of separation” discovery story from this research with JyoRokusho Sensei. When I interviewed her, I asked her if she taught koto at Gila. She said that there was a koto teacher at Gila, but she became ill. This koto sensei was also moving from Gila to Tule Lake, so JyoRokusho Sensei took over her students. The teacher’s name was Mitsuko Oda. She was my mother’s koto teacher at Tule Lake.
Also, one of the students in the group photo at Gila River is Masayo Yasui (Arii), who was one of the founding members of San Jose’s Chidori Band. Masayo’s daughter, Mary Arii (Mah) aka Bando Misayasu, was one of my best friends when we attended UC Berkeley in the ’70s! Mary’s info of Bando Mitsusa teaching 140+ students at Tule Lake encouraged me to seek out more artists of the camps. The Japanese American community is closely interconnected!
Both of these women learned their craft in Little Tokyo. It was the place where people could just walk to their sensei’s studio and take lessons. After the war, people were scattered and it got more difficult to continue these art practices, although through the ’60s and ’70s, Japanese Americans knew the importance of instilling the culture of their heritage to their children and continued to bring them to learn Japanese music and dance.
Both Yukino and JyoRokusho Sensei were very modest people, but as the arts were less and less understood, they felt they were no longer of importance.
JyoRokusho Sensei noted that after the war, every buyō teacher wanted a live music background, or jikata. Kineya JyoRokusho said in my last meeting with her, “That’s why every time when it comes to jikata they used to call me. But, ima wa (now), everybody forget me so dakara (that’s why) they don’t even understand.”
I feel that her performances were very special because she provided live music for the dances and kabuki scenes. Kineya JyoRokusho passed away in the early part of 2020 at the age of 100.
One thing I learned from listening and talking to these artists is how — in this horrible situation where they were uprooted from their homes and livelihoods and put into prison camps in the desert — they never gave up. They kept on going, finding things to make their lives manageable, finding work, finding play, working for their children and each other.
I also compare that to when we were in our homes trying not to get infected by COVID, but staying alive, learning how to make bread, learning a new language. New koto students came to me to ask for virtual lessons. We were fortunate to have a way to do this via the Internet.
Those in the camps created activities amongst themselves, entertained each other in real time, in person. Often, people think that the arts are not as important as learning science or math, but I think we are more aware, these days, that mental health is just as important. The arts help us to face adversity and hardship.
During these difficult times, I became more aware that playing the koto helped me when I thought the worst would happen. It truly helped me to manage myself, which is why I feel it is so important to find the thing that gives you joy, and make sure you do it often to keep yourself level, sane and happy.
Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto, is a teacher and performer on the koto based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Following training on the koto by her mother, she received her shihan and daishihan koto credentials from the Chikushi Kai in Fukuoka. She has expanded the repertoire of traditional koto music through her jazz fusion group, the Murasaki Ensemble, collaborating, arranging and composing music for the koto in various styles and genres. She has performed across the U.S and in Japan for numerous festivals, at universities and a wide variety of events.
Muramoto researched Japanese traditional performance arts in the WWII concentration camps, inspired by her mother’s experience learning to play the koto from teachers at Topaz and Tule Lake. In 2012, her project was awarded a National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites grant to turn her decades-long research into a documentary film. “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performance Arts in the World War II Internment Camps” premiered in 2014 and aired on public TV in the U.S. and universities here and in Japan. She has also produced a number of virtual Japanese arts programs, most notably “NextGen Geijutsuka: Future Stars of Japanese Traditional Arts.”
Photos courtesy Yukino Harada and Kineya JyoRokusho (except where noted)