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50+ Years in the Dance Circle: Mitzi Shimizu of Gardena

Mitzi Shimizu grew up in Washington state, led Bon Odori at the Gardena Buddhist Church for over five decades, studied with Dianne Fukuwa (Seiyumi Fujima), and served as the Southern District Music Chairperson numerous times from the 1960s to the 1990s.

In the early 1940s, Torazo “Jim” and Reiko Shimizu lived in the small town of Wenatchee along the Columbia River in the heart of Washington state. Jim worked for the railroad company and the couple welcomed their first child, Mitzi, in 1941.

During World War II, the Shimizu family was first incarcerated at the Portland Expo Center in Oregon, where Mitzi’s brother Hiroshi was born, and then at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, where her second brother Keiji was born.

The family moved to Spokane in eastern Washington after the war. Mitzi began taking piano lessons at the age of 10 and was encouraged by Mrs. Joyce Terao, wife of Rev. Eiyu Terao, to play for Sunday services at the Spokane Buddhist Temple. In the 1950s, Mitzi participated in Bon Odori at the temple and Japanese classical dance performances for the visiting Gomonshu Kosho Ohtani and other special events.

After graduating with a business degree from Eastern Washington University, Mitzi moved to Monterey Park and worked for the May Company in downtown Los Angeles. In 1963, she lived with an uncle in Gardena, attended the Gardena Buddhist Church, and soon became a Dharma School teacher, Bon Odori instructor, advisor to the Sangha Teens club, and recording secretary for the temple’s Board of Directors.

Mitzi led Bon Odori at the temple for over five decades from 1967 to 2019, and served as the Music Chairperson of the Southern District Dharma School Teachers League — in charge of organizing the Bon Odori instructors and overseeing the selection of dances for each Obon season — in 1969, 1977, and from 1991 to 1999.

In the 1990s, Mitzi studied Japanese dance with Dianne Fukuwa (Seiyumi Fujima), welcomed Rev. Koran Okahashi to Gardena for a live performance of his composition “Shiawase Samba,” and participated in the Southern California Obon at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Buddhist Churches of America in 1999.

Mitzi worked for over 40 years at the medical offices of Dr. Tom Maeda, Dr. David Inouye, and Dr. Elliot Taketo Sumi. While retired, she remains active at the Gardena Buddhist Church as an organist and participates in as many Obon festivals as possible throughout the Southern District.

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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