Choreographer’s Message: Don’t Forget Tohoku

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From left: Miles Hamada, Nisei Week ondo and closing ceremony chairperson; Sanjo Kanfuji, lead student of Sanjo Kangiku; Sanjo Kangiku, 2013 Nisei Week Parade choreographer; Steve Inouye, Nisei Week Foundation president; Michelle Hirose, Nisei Week PR coordinator. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Madame Kangiku Sanjo, choreographer for this year’s Nisei Week celebration, wants the new dances to be fun but at the same time to carry a serious message — remembering the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan in March 2011.

“I don’t think the American public is that much aware that the struggle still goes on,” she said at a recent luncheon with the Nikkei press. “We’re all fickle that way, I think. When an incident occurs, for maybe about a month we’re aware, but after that it’s like ‘It’s done’ and we go on to the next disaster. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of natural disasters lately.”

Although media coverage and fundraisers have dwindled over the last two years, Madame Kangiku heard that as many as 67 percent of the people who were displaced by the tsunami can’t go back to their homes yet.

With that in mind, she chose two pieces: “Tohoku Ondo” by Yukio Hashi and Ayako Fuji’s “Ayako no Okuni Jiman Da yo — Ganbarou na Tohoku!”

“It’s kind of geared toward the Tohoku region,” Madame Kangiku said of the latter song, “and Ayako sings about the six prefectures and all their matsuris.”

The hardest-hit prefectures were Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi. The other prefectures are Akita, Aomori and Yamagata. The entire region has suffered a drop in tourism due to “Fukushima fear” caused by the nuclear disaster.

“I’m trying to make the American public aware that there is still a problem,” Madame Kangiku said. “I don’t know what anyone can do — maybe go visit there and help them with their economy … I have friends who have gone up there, stayed at onsen and things like that.”

Her hope is that “someone somewhere, anyone, will have a brainstorm.”

For “Ayako no Okuni,” each dancer will carry a Japanese flag and an American flag. “Tohoku Ondo” will be te-odori, meaning that you only need your hands.

“I think that children or young people or anyone will enjoy it,” Madame Kangiku said, adding that she incorporated “jan ken po” (rock, paper scissors) into the dance “to kind of perk everyone up.”

Miles Hamada, Nisei Week ondo/closing ceremony chairperson, noted that the Sendai Buddhist Federation has been using “Tohoku Ondo” in its Obon celebrations, but that the choreography for Nisei Week will be different.

As for her personal connections to Tohoku and Japan, Madame Kangiku said, “My grandparents on my mother’s side are from Fukushima, but we have lost contact with any relatives. My mother was totally Nisei, never went to Japan. She was born in an era that was kind of anti-Japanese because of the war and discrimination, but then she married my father, who came from Japan when he was 30.”

She previously served as Nisei Week choreographer in 2009, as her sensei had before her. There is a different choreographer every year; at this year’s closing ceremony, the new one will be announced.

“Originally there were 10 Nihon buyo senseis, so rotation didn’t come around for 10 years,” she recalled, but her next turn as choreographer may come much sooner than that. And when that time comes, Tohoku may still need help.

Dancers will appear in the Grand Parade on Sunday, Aug. 11, starting at 4 p.m. in the streets of Little Tokyo, and in the ondo/closing ceremony on Sunday, Aug. 18, at 4 p.m. on First Street between San Pedro and Central.

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