By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
Nyan! Nyan! Nyan! If the dancers in the Nisei Week Grand Parade at times resemble a maneki neko, the beckoning lucky cat, then that is a nod to the artistry of choreographer Bando Hirohichiro, who will lead the dancers this Sunday in the Nisei Week Grand Parade.
“My hope is to bring back the pride and happiness and joy that J-Town and Nisei Week have symbolized all my life.” he said.
The annual presentation of two dances at Nisei Week is perhaps one the largest displays of Nihon buyo in North America. Dance schools traditionally gather to learn the moves for the parade and the result is a colorful moving celebration through the streets of Little Tokyo.
Hirohichiro said the dances are all about joy after years of considerable sorrow due to the pandemic.
“I think after three years of COVID, also we suffered as a community a lot of Asian hate. And so the two songs I selected are about bringing back that fun and joyfulness,” Hirohichiro said in an interview with The Rafu.
“‘Maneki Neko Ondo,’ which is bringing good fortune, good luck, and reviving Little Tokyo because one of my studios is in Little Tokyo. And the second song I chose was the theme from ‘One Piece’ because ‘One Piece’ is the first kabuki adaption from a manga, so I thought art would be fun to pay homage to those roots.”
Master Hirohichiro, whose given name is Ken Kanesaka, comes from a family of artists. His mom, Kyūka Kanesaka (aka Yukari Kanesaka), was recognized in May as a Woman of the Year for her contributions to the local Japanese American community. She has taught kimekomi doll-making throughout Southern California and is the founder of the Yukari Kai Kimekomi Doll Academy.
Even further back, Hirohichiro said his grandmother, Yukiko Sugino, was his inspiration.
He quoted her as saying, “I don’t care what you do, whether its kendo or dance, but I want you to do something with the arts.”
“I continue teaching because she said no matter how much you learn, if you don’t pass it on to the next generation, it’s mottainai — like what good is it?” he said.
He was just three years old when he started to dance with Bando Mitsuhiro Kai. Laughing, he recalled that he would be left at the dance studio as his mom ran errands. His sister, Sheri, continues to perform as Bando Hiroyukiya.
“There were a lot of students here so they can watch him while you run errands. I guess [Bando Mitsuhiro] asked, ‘Boku mo odoru?’ (Do you want to also dance?) and I guess I nodded. I don’t remember any of this, I was three,” Hirohichiro said.
From that moment, his life has been devoted to Japanese classical arts. In kabuki, he was awarded the stage name Nakamura Gankyo by the late National Living Treasure Sakata Tōjūrō IV and has performed kabuki throughout Japan.
Recently he served as an artistic consultant on Virginia-based Signature Theatre’s production of Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.” He was awarded his Ph.D. in Japanese literature from UCLA in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and was chosen as a Fulbright Scholar for 2013-2015 as a researching scholar at Waseda University and Tokyo University. Currently, he is an assistant professor of Asian studies at CSU San Bernardino.
Today, Hirohichiro has students all over the country and the world, including Boston, San Jose, Virginia, Hong Kong and Japan. Locally, he teaches students in Little Tokyo and at the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center.
“I’ll send them video and I can see them every week through Zoom. Of course the fine details are hard to teach, but at least they can memorize the **furitsuke** (choreography) and we can utilize the time a lot better,” he explained.
He emphasized that dance is about fun and energy and passing on the traditions. Master Hirohichiro said he honors his grandmother with every lesson.
“I tell my students my hope is not to be teaching all the time but to give them the opportunity to teach, to pass it on to the next generation,” he said.
The Nisei Week Grand Parade will be held in Little Tokyo on Sunday, Aug. 13, from 3 p.m. More information at www.niseiweek.org.