Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Dance from your soul.” My sensei, Sumako Azuma II, often used these words to inspire her students. She taught us that if you can express what is in your heart, you can truly touch your audience. These words formed the backbone of my dance training and I try to impart their concept to my own students.
Sumako-Sensei passed away on July 24, at age 61, after a courageous 24-year battle with brain and spinal cancer. As a dancer, choreographer and teacher she leaves a mark on the arts world unlike any other.
Born in Tökyö — to Sumako Azuma I, a Nihon buyö (Japanese dancer), and Daniel Aiso, a nisei MIS soldier — Janice Yuri Aiso began her dance training at age 3. She moved to the United States as a toddler and grew up in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles.
She was surrounded by Japanese language and culture from a young age. Her mother taught Ja-panese dance and her grandmother, who lived with them, was a chanoyu tea ceremony instructor, kimono seamstress and sumie (ink-wash painting) artist.
Janice was a talented dancer. She had an amazing ear for music and was blessed with incredible strength, grace and coordination — a perfect combination of natural-born gifts for dance. Her talent was apparent at a young age. Since the age of 12, Janice was invited to Japan annually during summer break to train under the gosöke (grandmaster) of Azuma-Ryü, Tokuho Azuma I, a national living treasure of Japan.
At the tender age of 14, Janice passed the exam for the natori (master) degree, earning the professional stage name of Harusuma Azuma, as a direct student of the gosöke. It was a rare honor to have earned natori status at such a young age, but especially rare to have it bestowed by a grandmaster.
Tragedy struck when Harusuma was only 16 years old. Her mother, Sumako Azuma I, passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm. The Japan Azuma directors asked Harusuma to take over her mother’s school — 40 students, both adults and children — even though she was only a child herself.
With the financial support of her family, Harusuma was able to continue her summer training in Japan, earning her shihan (instructor’s) degree at age 19. Two years later, she was invited to stay in Japan as an uchideshi (live-in apprentice) with Tokuho Azuma. As part of her training, Harusuma had to cook, clean and scrub floors. But she was rewarded with many hours of valuable lessons with the grandmaster. She remained fully immersed in Japanese dance and culture for one year.
Harusuma requested and received permission from Azuma Ryü to take the name Sumako Azuma II, in honor of her late mother. When she returned to the U.S., she earned the respect of her peer instructors and the community. She started to rebuild her mother’s school and soon had over 50 students.
Sumako was younger than half her students, but she taught with the maturity of a well-seasoned instructor. She taught a wide range of classical dances with strict adherence to the techniques she had learned in Japan. To make public performances more palatable to American audiences, however, her students danced to enka songs (about three to four minutes long), rather than typical Nihon buyö pieces (running eight to 20 minutes).
As a young adult, Sumako loved pop and jazz music. She became friends with the members of the jazz-fusion group Hiroshima, whose members use traditional Japanese instruments like koto, shakuhachi and taiko in their modern compositions. The band asked her to choreograph dances to their music and perform these dances as encore pieces at their concerts. Because of this connection, Sumako and her students danced at many well-known Los Angeles venues like the Hollywood Bowl, Universal Amphitheater and Greek Theater as well as many other venues nationwide.
Sumako carried this groundbreaking new choreography style to her dance school. She combined classical dance steps and techniques with modern music, favoring groups such as Hiroshima who used traditional Japanese instruments. The diversity of music played — both traditional and modern — made her dance classes interesting and enjoyable.
Over her 45-year teaching career, hundreds of students — female and male, of all ages and ethnicities — called her “Sensei.” She took the time to learn the personality of each student and tailor her teaching to match their individual skills. Always focused on keeping Nihon buyö true to the classical techniques, Sumako trained 14 students over the years to travel to Japan to take the natori exam and one student to take the shihan exam. She was always forward-looking and conscious of ensuring the future of Nihon buyö in the United States.
I am honored to be a part of the Azuma Ryü dance history. As a student of Sumako I since 1969, I studied with Harusuma (later Sumako II) for all 45 years. I was a naturally uncoordinated person, but Sumako’s patience and attention to classical technique helped me develop as a dancer, a natori, a shihan and currently an instructor of 21 years.
I feel that Sumako-Sensei’s most important contribution to Japanese arts was that she was always creating. Her choreographies to modern music were still “classical” and followed all the basic techniques, but she wanted Nihon buyö to be relevant to the Yonsei, Gosei and future generations.
[Her wise philosophy brought successful results, as I have an ever-growing school with over 75 students (pre-pandemic) scattered across Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, and in Southern California.]
More important than dance were the life lessons Sumako taught us — lessons about tradition, perseverance, innovation and vision — which we will carry with us forever. After her passing, I and many of her students shared about the influence she had on our lives, and how those lessons contributed to us becoming the people we are today. Personally, I try not only to “dance from my soul” but to also live my life by putting my heart and soul into everything I do, just as my sensei did. I am eternally grateful to her for all that she shared.
Rest in Peace and Love, dear Sensei. We treasure every life lesson you taught us and will do our best to carry on your legacy.
Kikusue Azuma (Carolyn Kubota Morinishi)
Carolyn (Kubota) Morinishi resides in Kapa‘a with her husband Ron and her mother, Marian Kurasaki Kubota. They live together on the site where Marian was raised. Carolyn, a former software engineer, and Marian are the talents behind the Herald’s monthly Culture4Kids! column. Carolyn is also involved in Japanese cultural arts. She holds natori (master) and shihan (master instructor) degrees in Nihon buyö at the Azuma School in Tökyö, and received the dance name Kikusue Azuma. She continues to teach dance on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu and in Los Angeles.