By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
Madame Fujima Kansuma, who taught Japanese classical dance to generations of dancers, passed away peacefully in her sleep on Feb. 22 at the age of 104.
An inspirational figure of beauty, grace and commitment to artistic excellence, Kansuma enchanted audiences with her choreography in a career that spanned from before World War II, up until this year’s New Year’s program at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
Madame Kansuma taught more than 2,000 dancers, 50 of whom have been granted professional standing by kabuki grandmasters. During the pandemic, she awarded natori status to her 49th and 50th students. She continued to teach at her studio at the JACCC until the Saturday before her passing.
“The thing that resonates is her powerful presence. It was always like you felt a little bit stronger when she’s there and you feel like everything will be OK,” remarked her daughter, Miyako Tachibana. “I love her servant’s heart and her powerful presence. Those two things really resonate with me.
“I am grateful to hear from her many students how they are thankful for the gifts of mentorship, friendship, and sisterhood her leadership provided.”
Born Sumako Hamaguchi in San Francisco on May 9, 1918, Kansuma began training in Japanese dance at the age of nine. In 1934, she participated in the very first Nisei Week Japanese Festival. That same year she traveled to Japan to study under Kikugoro Onoe VI.
Traditionally, a Japanese child begins training in dance on the sixth day of the sixth month of her sixth year, but she persisted, learning acting, dancing, kimono dress and etiquette, shamisen and tokiwazu music. She received her dance name from Fujima Kanjuro, grandmaster (gosoke) of the Fujima School, in 1938, and returned to Los Angeles to open a dance studio in a hotel owned by her father.
June Aochi Berk was enrolled in Kansuma’s classes by her parents when she was five years old, learning Japanese dance and etiquette. She fondly remembers dancing with Kansuma at the Hollywood Bowl before World War II.
“She would always remind us students that we not only need to be better dancers, but we especially need to become better, nicer persons too. We were very close all our life. I owe her everything I learned from her about the Japanese culture. My only regret is that I did not get to personally say ‘Thank you’ to her,” Berk said.
During World War II, Kansuma and her family were first sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center and then to the concentration camp in Rohwer, Ark. Upon her arrival at Rohwer, she had brought only a wig, a kimono, a fan and one recording with her. Eventually, government authorities allowed her, under armed guard, to return to Los Angeles to retrieve her costumes and records. She then was permitted to teach and perform in different War Relocation Authority camps.
Berk recalled going from the Santa Anita Assembly Center to Rohwer and witnessing Kansuma’s impact on the audience and her ability to lift spirits in such desolate settings.
“From Los Angeles we were together in Santa Anita and Rohwer, Ark., and she even came to Denver, Colo. to perform and continue to teach us more dances. She was a ‘rock star’ in the camps. Men would cry just watching her dance. She was a dream of beauty when she danced,” Berk stated.
In a 2017 interview with The Rafu, Kansuma remembered performing the children’s story “Urashima Taro” for incarcerees. The title character spends a few days at an undersea palace, then returns to his village only to find that centuries have passed. When he opens a box that was given to him at the palace, he ages rapidly.
“When he came back, his friends were all gone,” she reflected. “I was telling them I hope that we will all be there. But we are all gonna age and so he opened the box and I became very old. That’s when they all cried. Because I have to dance something they will understand. We’re here but we don’t know when we will be able to return home.”
After World War II, Kansuma returned to Little Tokyo, re-establishing her dance studio. On many occasions she worked with Walt Disney on such projects as “Family Night” at the Hollywood Bowl and the opening of the iconic ride “It’s a Small World.” In fact it was Disney himself who named her dance group Kansuma Kai, which is still used today.
She performed for Emperor Akihito and danced in the Tournament of Roses Parade and the 1984 Olympics.
In 1985, the government of Japan awarded Kansuma the Order of the Precious Crown, Apricot. The National Endowment deemed her a National Heritage Fellow for the Arts in 1987. In 2004, she was given the Japanese American National Museum’s Cultural Ambassador Award.
In 2018, Kansuma, at 100 years old, choreographed the Nisei Week Grand Parade and celebrated her centennial with a performance at the Aratani Theatre.
Jeanne Ideno, whose professional name is Fujima Kansubai, has been a student of Kansuma, along with her twin sister Joanne Yamahata, since they were 3½.
For Kansuma’s 100th birthday performance, the sisters were behind the scenes helping to dress the dancers, who wore elaborate kimono, wigs and obis. The meticulous attention to every detail is a trademark of Fujima Kansuma, who was called Osho-san by her students.
“With Osho-san’s guidance she makes it so its authentic,” Ideno said. “In the sense of colors that work together. It will go down to weather, season, the design on the kimono if it matches the season, the dance we’re doing, the significance of a flower or a design that looks like an arrow. It goes down to those minor details that Osho-san will confirm that it’s done correctly.”
Kansuma’s final performance can be viewed on YouTube. For JACCC’s Kotohajime, she is seated, surrounded by Fujima Kansuzu, her daughter and others. smiling gently and playing with a paper ball,, a traditional New Year’s game.
“Her movement in hitting the colorful paper ball was so graceful and coordinated so well with Miyako Sensei,” said Annie Yoshihara, whose professional name is Fujima Kansumi. “In my heart she is still a shining star. Dr. Leonard Pronko once said, ‘I will always be her student and she will forever be my teacher.’ I echo that thought.”
Hirokazu Kosaka, JACCC artistic director, said, “Fujima Kansuma Sensei was inspirational to all of us. She has given me fountains of personal fulfillment and motivated me to inspire others. I was fortunate to have her on two occasions at the Aratani Theatre for the New Year celebration of the Kotohajime program. 2023, 40th Kotohajime (Hatsu-U/First Hare) was Sensei’s last performance on the stage.”
Bette Hiramatsu, JACCC board chair, called Kansuma an inspiration and a cultural icon.
“She had a deep passion for her art and taught until the final days of her life,” Hiramitsu said. “She participated in two of our annual Kotohajime programs, including this year’s Hatsu-U, which helped ring in the year 2023. Hatsu-U was Sensei’s last stage performance, so we are even more grateful for her presence. When the stage lights were on, we sensed that she felt at home. Madame Kansuma will be deeply missed.”
A celebration of life is being planned for April 16 at the JACCC. Kansuma is survived by daughter Miyako Tachibana; son-in-law Noriyoshi Tachibana; and grandchildren Jonathan, Taizo and Miwa Tachibana.