As May marks two months into the lockdown in Los Angeles, California, Little Tokyo—one of the many ethnically historic neighborhoods in this city—is shuttered in the same cautious stillness as across the entire state, country, and globe. In a city that is constantly stirred, full of events and close bodies, it is a strange period to witness this new normal, otherwise known as “these days.”
However empty, these days Little Tokyo vibrates valiantly in immediate, remarkable efforts of mobilizing resources for small businesses, families, healthcare workers, and to the many senior citizens living in the residential buildings. With reminders that this community has survived immense tension and oppressive times before, I reason that this effective response to the community’s critical needs draws from the experiences and memories of past mass crises.
There have been several parallels drawn recently between the community’s World War II incarceration and the current shutdown situation. The physical confinement of Japanese Americans in camps and their stigmatization resonates in recent reports of bigoted attacks on Asian Americans, both manifestations of fear inflamed by racism and failures in political leadership. In the months after Executive Order 9066 was signed in 1942, Little Tokyo, then the largest Japanese American community on the mainland, saw the closing of businesses and religious institutions and the eventual disappearance of old residents. E.O. 9066 enabled the forced removal of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. It took decades for the district to recover, with people suffering severe financial and emotional hardship.
Even today, amid the rapid urban developments in Downtown L.A., the community has to fight plans of reconstruction and displacement of local businesses and residential centers. Organizations like Sustainable Little Tokyo and the Little Tokyo Service Center work to protect and ensure that the history of the neighborhood is saved and for its cultural distinctiveness to remain relevant. In light of recent events, this effort is greater emphasized with the support organized to keep local restaurants and shops in business during and past the pandemic.
May also marks the 102nd birthday of the legendary kabuki dancer and instructor Madame Fujima Kansuma, who has dedicated her life to teaching and celebrating kabuki culture and history since the 1930s. In 2018, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center hosted a birthday celebration for her 100th year in partnership with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.
Born Sumako Hamaguchi on May 9, 1918, Madame Kansuma was a pioneer not only in introducing the dance form to many Americans in the early 1940s, but also as a woman accepted into a traditionally male practice. She studied kabuki in Japan under the tutelage of Onoe Kikugoro VI and Fujima Kanjuro VI. When she was twenty years old and after only four years of training, Kikugoro granted her permission to perform his signature dance, the “Kagami Jishi” (Mirror Lion Dance). It was Kanjuro who gave her her natori, her professional name, Kansuma, which she carried throughout her career.
In 1940, she opened a dance studio in Little Tokyo and began to teach classes. Shortly thereafter, however, she had to close up her practice when the United States entered World War II, and her family, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans in the L.A. region, were confined in the Rowher camp in Arkansas—one of ten “relocation centers” administered by the War Relocation Authority.
Her camp experience was unlike any other, with consistent interest from her students to continue their practice and from people across the different camps who wanted to see her perform. For this she was granted special permission from camp authorities to return to Los Angeles under armed guard to retrieve costumes and phonograph records.
During the war, her performances of “Urashima” and “Tange Sazen” became popular spectacles—stages were swiftly constructed just for her, people stood outside her barrack windows during practice, and the choreography was adapted to the environment. In a 2004 interview for the Japanese American National Museum, Madame Kansuma remembered, “No matter where I go, they made a big stage for me... so I had to try. I have to please them and... I think I did make them happy. Every time when I’m on the stage, I could see them crying... It was really from your heart.”
The performances left a lasting impression on those who witnessed them. June Berk, an internee also at Rohwer and a former student of Madame Kansuma, described her as a “rock star in the era of the camp days,” bringing large inspiration and hope to the otherwise grim landscape.
During the incarceration, in fact, many Japanese Americans continued to practice their arts. While most people couldn’t travel from camp to camp to perform like Madame Kansuma, there is documentation of dances, plays, and musical performances, as well as large collections of paintings, drawings, texts, woodwork, and jewelry-making that demonstrate the way Japanese Americans expressed their creativity in confinement. The Japanese American National Museum and Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, among other institutions, consider these artifacts of great significance as examples of resilience, creativity, and survival.
With the power to distribute spirit through dance, Madame Kansuma continued to have an extraordinary career after the war. She and her students garnered several outstanding performances and awards; most notably, she received the Order of the Precious Crown, Apricot, in 1985 by the Japanese government, and the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987. Her legacy lives on through her daughter Miyako Tachibana, who also became a kabuki dancer and teacher, and the hundreds of students she has taught or inspired, forty-six of whom received their natori.
She still teaches with her daughter, and, in 2018, she was the choreographer of the Nisei Week Parade, the longest continuously run Japanese American festival in the country. She was regularly at practice, dancing and instructing the performers from her chair, still in perfect command. Berk, who speaks with Madame Kansuma weekly on the phone, told me that her dedication to kabuki is unbound, and that she still sounds like she’s twenty-nine years old.
It is a big wonder for me to imagine a lifetime of 102 years, not to mention living through a war, incarceration by your own government, and now a pandemic. I am reminded of how long a lifetime can be and the closeness of the past. With figures like Madame Kansuma, Little Tokyo has living links to its cultural history and heritage, and in these days of separation we find reassurance with our connections to those who have been through the most difficult of times.
Some people joke that quarantine birthdays are like spending a birthday out at sea—you don’t age. But 102 years is a serious achievement to count! For now, we send her virtual good cheer and hopes for good health, safety, and spirits. And for another dance again soon.
Yuka Murakami is an artist and filmmaker, who edited the accompanying video for the Japanese American National Museum. She is interested in memory, history, and human expressions of remembrance. She lives and works in Los Angeles.
The video was produced for the program Fujima Kansuma: 100th Birthday Celebration, a co-presentation of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Japanese American National Museum, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. It received federal support from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center