OBITUARY: Sumako Azuma II, 61; Japanese Dance Teacher

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Sumako Azuma leads dancers as the official choreographer at the Nisei Week Closing Ceremony on First Street in Little Tokyo in 2008. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

Sumako Azuma II (Janice Aiso Edesa) passed away on July 24 at age 61, succumbing after years of battling brain and spinal cancer, but her artistry and influence continue to live on.

Born in Tokyo on Aug. 17, 1958, to Sumako Azuma I and Daniel Aiso, a Nisei veteran of the Military Intelligence Service, Azuma was raised in Southern California.

Her mother and grandmother, Sosetsu Okawa, an Edo Senke tea ceremony instructor, surrounded her with Japanese language and culture. She started dancing at age 3 and was awarded the natori (master) degree at age 14, under the direct instruction of Tokuho Azuma I.

When her mother passed away in 1975, she began her career teaching Japanese dance. This year would have been her 45th year of classical dance instruction.

Sumako Azuma II

Fourteen students received their natori degrees and Azuma Kikusue was awarded a shihan, becoming the first first foreign-born-and-raised shihan of the Azuma School.

Azuma’s final performance was “Kimigayo Shochikubai” in June 2018 in celebration of her 60th birthday, where the audience at Thousand Oaks High School responded with a standing ovation.

“She was uniquely talented, with an instinctive ability to know how to move and she also practiced very, very hard to make dance steps look the way she wanted it to look,” said Azuma Kikusue.

Starting her dance career in Tokyo at age 3.

Azuma would spend her summers as a teenager in Japan, learning from Azuma Tokuho I. For an entire year, she was an uchi deshi, a live-in apprentice, at the Azuma School. Among her duties was scrubbing floors, so she could spend precious free time learning from the venerable dance master.

“The gosōke  (grandmaster) was so tough on Sumako because she could see she had so much talent,” Kikusue said.

She earned her shihan (instructor) degree at 19, returning to Los Angeles to continue her mother’s dance school. Azuma also earned the senmombu (specialty instructor’s) degree, and was honored as a “Woman of the Year” by the Downtown chapter of the JACL.

In 1980, Sumako Azuma II graced the cover of Hiroshima’s album “Odori.”

Dan Kuramoto, leader of Hiroshima, affectionately refers to Azuma as “sensei” and cites her as an enduring influence on the band. She is featured on the cover of the band’s second album, “Odori,” and performs in the 1986 music video “One Wish.”

In “One Wish,” as the band plays, Azuma dances dressed in a pale pastel kimono and red-and-gold obi; her movements evoking the dreamy melody and delicate koto performance by June Kuramoto.

Performing with six of her natori in 1997, Sensei joined “Arashi no Taiko” at the Japan America Theatre.

“Her posture, her bends were far deeper, whether gymnastics, ballet: stronger, more graceful more powerful more emotional. That’s what I saw in her,” June said. “She makes it look beautiful and easy, but it isn’t.”

“Janice’s dedication was unbelievable. It reinforced what we in Hiroshima were doing preserving — our native Japanese culture and translating to the culture here,” Dan said.

Azuma would choreograph songs for the band throughout their careers, including a sold-out performance in the 1980s at the Greek Theatre, featuring her natori students dancing as they waved large sparklers.

Sumako Azuma II takes a bow on June 24, 2018 after dancing “Kimigayo Shochikkubai” in honor of her kanreki (60th birthday). The appearance, during the annual recital of Kikusue Azuma’s dance class at Thousand Oaks High School, was her final public performance.

“Sensei choreographed this incredible odori through the aisles. The whole audience was on their feet and screaming. We could barely play, it was so breathtaking. Her giving our culture to this country,” Dan said with appreciation.

Kikusue, who started her dance instruction with Sumako Azuma I, also fondly remembered the Greek concert.

“The Fire Department was involved, we had all kinds of rules. It was fun now that we look back at it,” Kikue recalled.

Students of Sumako-sensei and Kikusue-sensei have performed at the Hollywood Bowl, Universal Amphitheater and numerous benefits for community and nonprofit organizations.

Azuma’s gift was in incorporating a Japanese American sensibility into the classical art.

“Even though we all do the classical dances, she wanted to reach out to Yonsei, Gosei younger generations. She choreographed to modern dances,” Kikusue said.

Azuma was featured many times as a Nisei Week choreographer, most recently in 2012, when the public ondo dancers performed in Little Tokyo to ““Kawachi Otoko Bushi” by Mitsuko Nakamura and Hiroshima’s “One World.”

Despite undergoing numerous surgeries, her friends said she never complained. As her health declined she would continue to teach at her home in Glendale until early this year.

“She was teaching on a limited basis. We would go to her house. She could no longer walk well but she would still teach us from a sitting position,” Kikusue said.

“She was not overly optimistic but didn’t make a big deal out of it,” Dan said. “Never went through ‘Why me?’ She was more concerned about her students and what she could do to support them.”

Kikusue studied for many years under Azuma and continues to share her teachings with her students. Although they have been unable to meet due to the current safer-at-home restrictions, she says her dance school is thriving.

“I have these 60 students, who want to dance so badly. It’s all because of her. She inspired us to choreograph to new music and keep the kids interested,” Kikusue said.

Azuma Sumako II is survived by her husband Richard Edesa, sister Yoko (Satoshi) Okada, niece Christine Okada-Seike (Andrew Seike), nephew Steven (Ivana) Okada and their children, stepdaughter Senta Edesa and her family, and other relatives.

Due to community health conditions, burial will be private. A public memorial will be announced in the future.

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