Fujima Kansuma dies at 104; master kabuki dancer has taught generations of Japanese Americans

His father wanted the sons to carry the family name, but his wife gave birth to daughters. This is how the famous Fujima Kansuma, a master kabuki dancer who entertained generations of Japanese Americans, adopted this art because it allowed her to assume male roles in order to achieve the wish of his father.

Family members say she had no other hobby than dancing – and she stayed true to her lifelong passion, performing and teaching until her death from congestive heart failure on February 22. She was 104 years old.

Born in San Francisco on May 9, 1918, Kansuma was the eldest of two sisters originally named Sumako Hamaguchi before taking her stage name. As a child, she was often sick and bedridden, prompting a doctor to advise her parents to find an activity to boost her immunity and strength. Her mother chose kabuki, and when the family moved to Los Angeles, their daughter began lessons at age 9, immersing herself in the classic form of Japanese theater, blending theater and traditional dance.

Kansuma joined an all-female troupe, touring Hawaii, then decided she wanted to learn from the best. Yet the best was in the ancestral homeland.

“It was significant that they let her go,” said her daughter, Miyako Tachibana, 72. “All her life, my mother was wonderfully supported by her parents and they seized the opportunity when she told them what she really wanted.”

After graduating from high school, Kansuma traveled to Japan where she studied with the “God of Drama”, Onoe Kikugoro VI, a kabuki star who ran her own school. Over the course of four years, she absorbed the rigors of acting, dancing, learning how to conduct a tea ceremony and arranging flowers, dressing in kimonos and practicing etiquette. Her peers mocked her as “America’s daughter”, but her family said she was determined to carry on, learning new skills such as playing the taiko And tsuzumi, both percussion instruments.

Her teacher gave her the name Kansuma, and after competitions against some of Japan’s top students, granted her the honor of performing one of his best-known dances for her professional debut.

At 21, Kansuma returned home with trunks full of costumes and wigs and soon opened her first studio in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

“She was a teacher who took into consideration all the personalities of those around her,” said Annie Yoshihara, one of her lifelong students. “She made dancing comfortable for all of us, knowing our shortcomings. She made sure to respond to each person in a special way.

“When you’re in the room with her, the dance and the dancer is what you focus on,” Tachibana said. “My mother was just a doll. She even looked like a doll. At 4-foot-11-and-a-half, she was always trying to grow taller by her hairstyle or her heels. On stage, she was gargantuan. And she was captivating. The inner presence she had in the spotlight, it was amazing.”

“Osho-san,” as his longtime students respectfully called him, launched his career before World War II. In the earliest forms of kabuki, female performers portrayed both men and women in comic scenes of ordinary life. Yet, soon after beginning to teach, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, dragging the United States into the war and leading the government to forcibly relocate and imprison over 120,000 people of Japanese descent.

Fujima Kansuma

Fujima Kansuma

(Courtesy of Toyo Miyatake studio)

Kansuma and his family were moved to different prison camps, ending up in Rohwer, Ark. The camp administrator sought out Kasuma after being inundated with letters from fellow inmates asking to continue their dance lessons.

“So he found my mom, learned what she was doing, and allowed her to teach in some of the places she was needed,” Tachibana said.

He also began taking him on tour, including to private colleges, in an effort “to give white people in America a sense of the true nature of the Japanese – to show them that they’re not the enemy. She was like a goodwill ambassador,” Tachibana said. “She offered a sense of comfort through her dancing.”

Later, accompanied by an armed guard, Kasuma was given permission to travel to Los Angeles to collect more costumes and music. In late 1945, when the war ended, she and her family returned to Los Angeles where she embarked on a strict regime of teaching and performing, attending dozens of Japanese American cultural events each year in Southern California.

As his reputation spread, more and more students flocked to his classes in Little Tokyo.

Yoshihara, 77, was only 4 years old when she first met Kansuma.

“She said ‘take your shoes off’ and I wouldn’t do that. So she created a routine with a doll in the studio to get my attention,” Yoshihara said. “The next week when I came back, I brought my own doll and it kind of jazzed me up and I started cooperating. I’ve been taking lessons ever since.”

Kansuma worked with Walt Disney, who liked to infuse an “international flavor” into his shows. When he presented a “Family Night” at the Hollywood Bowl, his kabuki students would perform after the Mouseketeers and other bands. And when Disney held a “Christmas in Many Lands” parade at Disneyland, Yoshihara and his cast were invited to parade and dance.

Even during a dance lesson a few days before his death, Kansuma “was, as usual, at full speed,” Yoshihara said. In his studio on the fourth floor of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, “his voice rang out clearly. She was yelling at us. She said ‘turn around, back up, go forward’. She was a great choreographer. She didn’t miss a step.

In more than 70 years of dancing, Kansuma has taught nearly 2,000 students, including his daughter, who achieved kabuki master status.

Toyo Wedel, 80, was 6 when Kansuma stopped by her dance class in Chicago during one of Kansuma’s tours. At the time, her busy family life left no time for Wedel to pursue her interest in dance.

His Japanese teachers had just returned from Los Angeles, where Osho-san had given them private lessons.

“I always loved dancing, but I had to raise my kids,” said Wedel, who eventually moved to Thousand Oaks. But when her youngest son went to college in 1998, she called Kansuma.

“She said to me, ‘I’m 80 years old. You come back.’ So I went back, that was 24 years ago,” Wedel said. “She’s just the nicest teacher you can have. She told us the story behind the dance, the story behind the character. I have always loved the way she continues to promote her art and our traditions.

Kansuma’s dedication to sharing the beauty of kabuki and its Japanese heritage has earned him awards, including the Order of the Precious Crown, Apricot, from the Japanese government in 1985 and the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987.

In 2018, at age 100, she served as choreographer for Los Angeles’ Nisei Week Parade, continuing a tradition of involvement in Nisei Week that has featured her students’ performances for decades.

A celebration of his life is scheduled for April 16 at the JACCC’s Aratani Theatre. Kansuma is survived by his daughter, son-in-law Noriyoshi Tachibana; and three grandchildren, Jonathan, Taizo and Miwa Tachibana.

Wedel said she will never forget her last moment with Kansuma. “Her last words to me were – when I said goodbye to her after practice – ‘be careful coming home because of the sun’. At 104, she was still worried about me driving in the brilliance of the sun. I couldn’t believe it.

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