OBITUARY: Komori, 80; Bon Dance Choreographer and Teacher

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Komori choreographed nine songs in the 1970s, helping to transform Obon dancing to the participatory community event it is today. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

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By RYOKO OHNISHI
RAFU STAFF WRITER

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Miyoko Komori, whose choreography style can be seen in the joyous Obon celebrations every summer at Buddhist temples, passed away last month. She was 80. A service was held on Jan. 31 at Fukui Mortuary with her close friends and students in attendance.

Miyoko Komori

Rev. Mas Kodani of Senshin Buddhist Temple credited Komori for helping to create the communal spirit of Obon dancing that exists today. In the 1970s, the reverend asked Komori to choreograph dances for the Buddhist churches in an effort to revive a communal folk style of dancing. Then Komori choreographed the first nine songs: “Bon Odori Uta,” “Hanagasa Odori,” “Hokkai no Abarembo,” “Joban Tanko Bushi,” “Mamurogawa Ondo,” “Yagi Bushi,” “Tokyo Ondo,” “Souma Bon Uta,” and “Yosakoi Naruko Odori,

“Komori is the person who changed the Bon dancing from a performance to participation. Rather than showing, dancing without one’s ego is the basis of Buddhist dance. The Bon dancing that Komori has choreographed is the dance everybody can master and enjoy.  Without her, we would not have this Bon dancing style today,” said Kodani.

According to her younger sister, Hiroko Nakamura, Komori was born in 1930 in Tezukayama, Osaka, the first daughter and eldest child of the family. At age 3, Komori started learning modern ballet and later, she joined Homura Tomoi Ballet Team based in Osaka.  Her adolescent years coincided with World War II.

After the war, because of her father’s job, the family moved to Hiroshima and later, Marugame, Kagawa Prefecture. At that time, she received some marriage inquiries but she refused, saying that she wanted to pursue her career in ballet. She joined Homura Tomoi Ballet as her profession. Around 1954, she established the Komori Buyo Kenkyujyo (Komori Dance Institute) in Marugame and began to choreograph dancing in her own style.

Afterwards, in the ’50s and ’60s, she contracted with King Records and began touring schools on Shikoku Island to show teachers how to do group dancing on sports days and other special occasions. Later on, Komori started choreographing minyo and popular songs, including “Nangoku Tosa o Atonishite” (Leaving Tosa Behind) and “Yosakoi Soran Bushi.”

Komori came to the United States in 1963 to introduce and promote the “Tokyo Gorin Ondo” (Tokyo Olympic Dance) within the Japanese American community one year before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The music was also released by King Records, which sponsored her to remain in the U.S. as a cultural ambassador.

Komori decided to stay in America, where she mastered social dance and won many competitions. On one memorable occasion, while she was working as a staff member of a dance studio, an old gentleman asked people to dance with him but nobody did. When he came up to Komori, she danced with him. Afterwards, everybody cheered. It was Fred Astaire.

“My sister did not notice whom she was dancing with since he looked different from what she saw in pictures,” Nakamura said.

In 1970, Komori also received the Grand Marshal and Sweepstakes award trophies for a joint float entry in the 39th annual Santa Claus Lane Christmas Parade from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

All the while that she was active in social dancing, Komori never forgot the spirit of Japan. As Rev. Kodani noted, she also started choreographing Bon dances at the Nishi Honganji temples where various summer festivals took place. “It is amazing to know that the dances that my sister choreographed are still cherished among Japanese Americans even in Texas and Hawaii.” Nakamura said.

In 2007, the BCA (Buddhist Churches of America) Southern District temples recognized Komori’s contribution to restoring Obon dancing to its traditional roots, and Komori received a City of Los Angeles Certificate of Recognition presented by Councilmember Jan Perry.

According to the BCA publication, “Komori-sensei’s dances have stories, so they are easy to learn and fun to dance.”

As a dance instructor,  Komori started teaching at East Los Angeles College in the 1970s. Even  for the upcoming spring semester, she was supposed to start teaching a social dance class on Thursday, Feb. 10.

A colleague, Debra Scott, said, “She was such a lady and her presence was so elegant. I remember that she always prepared a potluck party for the last day of instruction of the semester. She did not eat but served the students. She cared for the students first.”

The former bishop at Koyasan Buddhist Temple, Taisen Miyata, who conducted Komori’s funeral, said that he became close to Komori after the passing of her late husband, Michio Tokunaga, in 1995. Before that, Miyata only saw her on TV and newspapers.

He recalled that it was an impressive scene when  Komori was on Channel 11 in 1974, participating in a parade on Hollywood Boulevard with her students. “I remember that all the dancers were wearing beautiful kimonos and their movements were in sync. The announcer said that Komori got her green card recently and she volunteered to participate the parade to express her appreciation. She never spoke up but rather she expressed herself by dancing. She was such a treasure for the community.”

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  1. Komori Sensei was a gifted and devoted teacher and friend. She helped her students embrace the tranquil beauty of Obon/ Ondo dancing and we participated in Los Angeles history bringing the dance to the Koyasan Temple, the streets of East L.A., Montebello, and Monterey Park, to the stage at the Kokusai Theater on Crenshaw, and to the grand opening of the New Otani Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. She was also a beloved staff member at East Los Angeles College. Her spirit continues to move us, and always will.

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