LOS ANGELES (FOX 11) - What will you be doing at age 101?
Fujima Kansuma is doing exactly what she’s been since she was 20. She teaches classical Japanese dance; currently, two classes at the Japanese American Culture and Community center in Little Tokyo.
As remarkable as that sounds, that’s not the only reason, Kansuma is a local treasure. She was born Sumako Hamaguchi in San Francisco, May 9, 1918. The family moved to Los Angeles when she was 3. Her father owned and operated the St. Charles Hotel on Main Street— what is now the Los Angeles mall across from the Federal court building
At age 9, she wanted to take dance lessons. First she tried tap dancing, but she said, “No, that’s not for me. “
She then tried classical Japanese dance, but her teacher told her, she was too late because she was no longer, “sweet.” That didn’t deter her, she continued to take lessons and then vied for the starring roles in the performances. Lucky for her, Kansuma remembers, the star pupil preferred going to parties or the beach, instead of rehearsing. That girl actually told the teacher, Sumako will do it! She became so good, she traveled to Japan to continue her dance training. There, she earned her professional status and her name, Kansuma.
At age 20, she returned to Los Angeles and opened her own dance studio in her father’s hotel. The number of students grew, but war would change the course of her life as a teacher and dancer.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. government forced 120 thousand people of Japanese descent, living on the west coast out of their homes and into the euphemistically named relocation camps.
The U.S. government moved Kansuma’s family from Los Angeles to Rowher, Arkansas, one of 10 internment camps.
Some of the internees in Rohwer knew her reputation and soon she was teaching and performing for the them. Kansuma didn’t have the right costumes or accessories for her performances, so she remembers taking chopsticks and turning them into ornaments for the hair.
Eventually, Rohwer’s assistant camp director Joseph Hunter allowed her to take a quick trip back to Los Angeles to bring back one of her kabuki costumes. "I told them, if I don't have the kimono I can't dance. We will go with you. so, i went back."
She remembers going to Chinatown to have lunch, pretty confident she'd blend in and not draw attention as the sole Japanese American, walking the streets of LA. Once she had her costume, she returned to Rowher. But Hunter had plans for her that went beyond the barbed wire of the internment camp. He took Kansuma to churches and community centers to perform for the locals, some who were unhappy that the Japanese Americans were incarcerated in Arkansas. Hunter wanted to show them there was nothing to be afraid of and no reason to be nasty to the internees. He also brought her to other internment camps, though in my interview, she wasn't quite sure which ones. There were
10 of them, placed all over the U.S.
In the meantime, if you're wondering which one costume she brought back to Rohwer from her childhood home, it was the costume for a fisherman, a boy really. And, that was no accident.
"My father wanted a boy. All of his friends had boys. I was the only girl. He was kind of disappointed. So, I was saying, I'm going to show him, I'm going to be like samurai and I'm going to be a boy."
No doubt, her father got over his disappointment as she continued to excel at dance and once back in LA, she opened one dance studio after
"Before my father passed , he said, Sumako, thank you. I enjoyed my life. I said, father, thank you. We thanked each other."
Even at 101, Kansuma continues to create and teach. Her daughter, Miyako, who is an accomplished dancer in her own right, says, her mother is preparing for Japan Day in San Francisco.