National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Fujima Kansuma
Washington, DC—It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the death of Japanese American dancer, Fujima Kansuma, of Los Angeles, California, recipient of a 1987 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
Fujima Kansuma was born Sumako Hamaguchi in San Francisco, California, on May 9, 1918. When she was three years old, her family moved to Los Angeles. She began training in dance at age nine. This is rather late; a Japanese child's training traditionally begins on the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year. Soon she was taking starring roles in a 15-member girls' kabuki group. When she was 14, she performed as a stand-in for Sylvia Sydney in the film Dream Girl.
Upon graduation from high school, Kansuma studied her art in Japan, where she became a student of Kikugoro Onoe VI, an outstanding kabuki star who ran an acting school. For four years she studied acting, dancing, kimono dress and etiquette, samisen and tokiwasu music, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and the percussion instruments tsuzumi and taiko. In the world of kabuki during that period, women were not allowed to perform; the young girl was ridiculed as "the girl from America" and put into competition against the best of Japan's young students. Her willpower and determination carried her through the rigors of the training, and in 1938 she was granted the professional name of Kansuma. For her professional debut, she was given permission by Kikugoro to perform one of his most famous dances, a privilege granted rarely, and then only to exceptional students.
During her stay in Japan, Kansuma saved the money her parents sent, earning her way by giving piano and English lessons. When she was ready to return home, she used her savings to purchase costumes and wigs. Within a month after returning to the United States, Kansuma opened her first dance studio in the Los Angeles hotel her father owned. She later added classes in Norwalk, Gardenia, and West Los Angeles.
World War II disrupted her life and career. She and her parents were arrested and held at various "relocation centers" for three years. They ended up in an internment camp in Arkansas. There, she attempted to give her fellow detainees some comfort and relaxation through her art, though she had only a kimono, a fan, and one recording of Japanese music. Later, camp authorities gave her special permission to return to Los Angeles under armed guard to pick up her costumes and records. Until the war's end, she taught and entertained in various internment camps.
After the war, Kansuma returned to Los Angeles and embarked on a strenuous schedule of performances. In her lifetime, Kansuma taught more than 2,000 dancers, 50 of whom, including her daughter, Miyako Tachibana, have been granted professional standing by kabuki grandmasters. Up until just before she passed, she had dedicated her life to teaching, in order to continue preserving and promoting her cultural heritage for younger Japanese Americans.
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. Also that year, she was the choreographer of the Nisei Week Parade, the longest continuously run Japanese American festival in the country.
In 2020, a short documentary film was produced by Yuka Murakami in collaboration with the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Alliance for California Traditional Arts, and Smithsonian Folklife. In it, June Berk, one of Kansuma’s former students said, “I feel very privileged to have been her student all these years. Her goal was to make each one of us realize the importance of practice and to become better—not only a better dancer, but a better person. She gauged us on how to live our life. There’s always room for improvement.” Read more and watch the documentary: Madame Kansuma at 102: On Confinement and Little Tokyo’s Cultural Heritage