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50+ Years in the Dance Circle: Marjorie Nakaji of San Jose, Palo Alto

Marjorie Nakaji (Jumasuga Hanayagi) studied at the Hanayagi School of Dance in Tokyo during the 1950s and 1960s, taught Bon Odori at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin and Palo Alto Buddhist Temple for decades, and collaborated with Opera San José.

In 1939, Marjorie Sugako Iwasaki was born in Gridley, California, the only child of George and Helen Iwasaki. The family lived in Marysville and Cortland until 1942, when they were incarcerated at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. While there, Marjorie studied Japanese classical dance starting at the age of 4 with Misa (Mitsusa) Bando.

After the war, the family briefly lived in Ohio before moving to San Jose, California, where Marjorie continued her education from third-grade through high school. She took dance lessons from Mrs. Hanazato and Jutei Hanayagi with additional instruction from Jumai Hanayagi during the summers.

Marjorie graduated from high school in 1957 and briefly taught Bon Odori at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin before moving to Japan for studies with Jusuke Hanayagi II, the head of the Hanayagi School of Dance in Tokyo. The experience was transformative and Marjorie returned from Japan in 1958 with her professional dance name, Jumasuga Hanayagi.

Back in San Jose, Jumasuga Hanayagi led Bon Odori at the temple for four decades, teaching dances such as “Bon Odori Uta,” “Horin Ondo,” “Jinsei Banzai,” “Tanko Bushi,” and “Zumpa Ondo.” In 1964, she was invited by the BCA Music Department and the Federation of Western Buddhist Sunday School Teachers’ League to teach “Bon Odori Uta,” “Bussei Koshinkyoku,” “Goshoraku Odori,” “Nippon Ondo,” and “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” at the league’s annual conference.

In her personal life, Marjorie was reacquainted with Robert Nakaji at a Japanese American club dance at San José State University. In 1963, they earned bachelor’s degrees from the University of California, San Francisco — Marjorie in nursing and Robert in physical therapy. The two married later that year and lived in San Francisco before moving to Japan, where Robert introduced new physical therapy techniques at the Tokyo Center for Rehabilitation. Marjorie resumed her studies with Jusuke Hanayagi II and earned her teaching certificate in 1966. The couple returned to San Jose and their two children — Mayumi Michelle “Mai” and Ross Makoto — were born in 1967 and 1970, respectively.

With family ties to the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, Jumasuga Hanayagi was asked to teach Bon Odori after the retirement of instructor Kimiko Fujimoto Yamakoshi in 1976. Over four decades later, she continues to lead Bon Odori in Palo Alto, teaching dances such as “Kawachi Otoko Bushi,” “Soran Bushi,” and “Ueomuuite Arukou” (“Sukiyaki”).

In recent years, Jumasuga Hanayagi has taught Japanese dance movements and has provided costuming assistance to the Opera San José’s productions of “Madama Butterfly.” Whether at the opera house or the Buddhist temple, Jumasuga Hanayagi is known for her dedication, careful attention to detail, and vast experience in Japanese dance.

To view a full list of 50+ teachers, follow the link: www.bit.ly/fiftyplusyears. If you have an additional dance instructor for the BCA Music Committee to consider, please email Wynn at wynnkiyama@gmail.com.

Wynn Kiyama teaches at Portland State University and is a member of the Oregon Buddhist Temple and the BCA Music Committee. He is currently working on a history of Bon Odori in the continental United States.


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