His father wanted sons to carry on the family name, but his wife gave birth to daughters. And so, the famed Fujima Kansuma, a master kabuki dancer who entertained generations of Japanese Americans, embraced her art because she allowed him to assume male roles as a way of fulfilling her father’s wish.
Family members say she had no hobbies except dancing, and stayed true to her lifelong passion of acting 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 older of two sisters originally named Sumako Hamaguchi before assuming her stage name. When she was a child, she was often sick and bedridden, which led a doctor to advise her parents to find an activity to build her immunity and strength. Her mother chose kabuki, and when the family moved to Los Angeles, her daughter began taking lessons at 9, immersing herself in the classical form of Japanese theater, mixing drama with traditional dance.
Kansuma joined a girl group, toured Hawaii, and then decided she wanted to learn from the best. However, the best was in her ancestral homeland.
“It was significant that they let her go,” said her daughter, Miyako Tachibana, 72. “All her life, my mother had wonderful support in her parents and they rose to the occasion when she told them what she really wanted.”
After graduating from high school, Kansuma headed to Japan, where he studied under the “God of Theater”, Onoe Kikugoro VI, a kabuki star who ran his 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, how to dress in kimonos, and practice etiquette. Her classmates mocked her as “America’s kid,” but her family said she was determined to keep going, picking up new skills, like playing the taiko and tsuzumi, both percussion instruments.
His teacher gave him the name Kansuma, and after competitions against some of Japan’s best students, he was awarded the honor of performing one of his best-known dances for his professional debut.
At 21, Kansuma came home with trunks full of costumes and wigs and promptly opened her first studio in a downtown Los Angeles hotel.
“She was a teacher who took into consideration all the personalities of those around her,” said Annie Yoshihara, one of her longtime students. “She made dancing comfortable for all of us, knowing our shortcomings. She made sure to take care of each person in a special way”.
“When you’re in the room with her, you focus on the dance and the dancer,” 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 be taller because of her hairstyle or her heels. On stage, she was gigantic. And she was captivating. The inner presence that she had under the spotlight was incredible ”.
“Osho-san”, as her former students respectfully called her, launched herself his career before World War II. In early forms of kabuki, actresses portrayed both men and women in comical scenes about everyday life. However, not long after he began teaching, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, drawing the US into war and prompting the government to forcibly relocate and imprison more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent. .
Kansuma and his family were transferred to different prison camps and ended up in Rohwer, Arkansas. The camp administrator sought out Kasuma after receiving a flood of letters from other detainees asking to continue her dance lessons.
“So he found my mother, learned what it was about, and allowed her to teach at some of the places where they requested her,” Tachibana said.
He also began taking her on tour, including to private universities, in an effort to “give white people in America an idea of the true nature of the Japanese, to show them that this is 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 retrieve more costumes and music. In late 1945, when the war ended, she and her family returned to Los Angeles, where she immersed herself in a strict regimen of teaching and performing, participating in dozens of Japanese American cultural events annually 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 he met Kansuma.
“She told me, ‘Take off your shoes,’ and I wouldn’t do that. So she created a routine with a doll in the studio to get my attention,” Yoshihara said. “The following week, when I came back, I brought my own doll and that encouraged me and I started to cooperate. I’ve been taking lessons ever since.”
Kansuma worked with Walt Disney, who liked to infuse an “international flavor” into his shows. When he hosted a “Family Night” at the Hollywood Bowl, his kabuki students would perform after the Mouseketeers and other acts. And when Disney organized a “Christmas in Many Countries” parade at Disneyland, Yoshihara and his group were invited to march and dance.
Even at a dance lesson days before his death, Kansuma “was, as usual, going full throttle,” Yoshihara said. In the fourth-floor studio at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, “her voice was clear. She was yelling at us. She said ‘turn around, go back, come forward’. She was a great choreographer. She never missed a step”.
Throughout more than 70 years of dance, Kansuma has taught nearly 2,000 students, including his daughter, who has achieved the status of a kabuki teacher.
Toyo Wedel, 80, was 6 years old when Kansuma stopped by his dance class in Chicago during one of Kansuma’s tours. At the time, his busy family life left Wedel no time to pursue his interest in dance.
His Japanese teachers had just returned from Los Angeles, where Osho-san gave them private instruction.
“I always loved to dance, but I had to raise my children,” said Wedel, who eventually moved to Thousand Oaks. But when his youngest son left for college in 1998, he called Kansuma.
“She told me: ‘I’m 80 years old. Comes back’. So I came back, that was 24 years ago,” Wedel said. “She is the kindest teacher you could have. She would tell us the story behind the dance, the story behind the character. She has always loved how she never stops promoting her art and our traditions.”
Kansuma’s dedication to sharing the beauty of kabuki and his Japanese heritage earned him awards, including the Order of the Precious Crown, Apricot, from the Japanese government in 1985 and the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Grant in 1987.
In 2018, at age 100, she served as the choreographer for Los Angeles’ Nisei Week Parade, continuing a tradition of Nisei Week participation that showcased performances by her students for decades.
A celebration of his life is scheduled for April 16 at the JACCC’s Aratani Theatre. Kansuma is survived by her daughter, son-in-law Noriyoshi Tachibana; and three grandchildren, Jonathan, Taizo, and Miwa Tachibana.
Wedel said that he will never forget his last moment with Kansuma. “Her last words from her to me were, when I said goodbye to her after practice, ‘be careful going home because of the sun.’ At 104, she was still worried about me driving in the glare of the sun. She couldn’t believe it.