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Recalling Chizu Iwanaga, BCA Music Department Pioneer

In the temple, as you practice meditation while music plays, very likely the moment is enhanced by the sounds of “Nembutsu,” arranged by Chizu Helen Iwanaga.


If you sang in one of the choirs at Watsonville, Berkeley, Oakland, or Palo Alto, you might even hear her beautiful soprano voice.


Chizu Iwanaga joined Jane Imamura, and Yumiko Hojo in composing music for Dharma School and adult services, with Kimi Hisatsune often providing lyrics. She wished to move away from the early English gathas, which drew heavily on the influences of Christian hymns.


Chizu Iwanaga, Jane Imamura, Yumiko Hojo, and Kimi Hisatsune were the four women who formed the first BCA Music Department.

Born in Stockton, California, in 1914, Chizu Iwanaga was playing the piano and organ for the Buddhist Church of Stockton from the age of 12.


When Rev. Yoshio Iwanaga was invited by Rev. Tansai Terakawa to teach doyo buyo (children’s dances) in the mainland United States, Iwanaga, who was 16 at the time, was asked to accompany him. He is remembered for traveling throughout the Western states teaching dances, holding recitals, and introducing obon odori to the temples.


She continued her studies at the College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific in Stockton) and was one of the first Asian graduates of the music department. In 1935, when Rev. Iwanaga returned to Japan for further ministerial certification, my mother, Grace Noyoshi Tatsuda, who was also on this trip, helped him select a purple kimono for his soon-to-be bride. That kimono is still in the family.


She married Rev. Yoshio Iwanaga in Stockton in 1935 and he served as the minister of the Buddhist Church of Stockton. After the birth of their first son, Gordon Mutsumi in 1938, Rev. Iwanaga was transferred to the Watsonville Buddhist Temple in 1940.


That same year, the officials of the International Exposition on Treasure Island asked the Buddhist Mission of North America and the California Young Buddhist League to organize a Buddhist Day. The Watsonville YBA Orchestra, newly organized by Chizu Iwanaga, performed at the Japan Pavilion. The Obon Odori organized by her husband drew dancers from many locales, resulting in more than 1,000 dancers. Their second son, Ryo Rio, was born a year later in 1941.


The orchestra enjoyed great popularity performing at YBA dances and local events. In 1942, many families in the area were incarcerated at the Poston detention camp in Arizona. In camp, Chizu Iwanaga organized a Buddhist choir and the Poston Camp II Orchestra. The musical ensemble performed for dances and this activity is humorously and accurately depicted in Jack Matsuoka’s book, “Poston Camp II, Block 211.” His cartoon is an unmistakable and charming caricature.


Upon their return to Watsonville after World War II ended in 1945, the Iwanagas were busy, as with all Buddhist churches, organizing the temple into a hostel and helping settle families.


After resettlement, she taught piano and reorganized the Watsonville YBA Orchestra, possibly around 1948, with many original members joined by younger members, including her son, Mutsumi, and his friends. The orchestra members remember this period fondly, as Watsonville YBA was the boisterous contingent that brought spirit and energy to what has been termed the “golden age” of WYBL conferences.


In 1948, the Golden Jubilee celebrated the Buddhist Churches of America’s 50th anniversary. Again, Rev. Iwanaga, assisted by Chizu Iwanaga, organized an Obon Odori at San Francisco’s City Hall Plaza. The first major event of the BCA after the war saw more than 1,000 dancers participating.


Bishop Rev. Enryo Shigefuji asked the Iwanagas to chair the BCA Music and Recording Department. Their project was to produce professional recordings of many gathas. The songs were sung by outstanding vocalists and accompanied by Chizu Iwanaga. The late Dr. Ryo Munekata remembered that during recording sessions, their home would have blankets hung on the walls for acoustic improvement. He also recalled picking up Rev. Iwanaga in Los Angeles at the train station and taking him to a professional studio to press the records.


When Rev. Iwanaga passed away in 1950 from a heart attack, two months after the completion of the record project, Chizu Iwanaga was asked to stay and manage the church, with the assistance of Fred Nitta and Rev. Bunyu Fujimura, minister at the Buddhist Temple of Salinas.


During this time, one memorable experience was for Chizu Iwanaga to teach popular Japanese star Misora Hibari to sing “Buttons and Bows” for her U.S. tour.


In 1956, when oldest son Mutsumi graduated from high school, they moved to Berkeley so the boys could attend the University of California, Berkeley.


In Berkeley, she joined the esteemed Berkeley Buddhist Church Choir, directed by Jane Imamura, who kindly used Chizu Iwanaga often for solos, and their friendship continued.


The Buddhist Church of Oakland soon requested Chizu Iwanaga’s services, and she formed the Oakland Buddhist Church Choir in 1960.


In 1969, she moved to Palo Alto to be near her son and family and became involved in the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple. In March 1970, the Young Buddhist Association members sang for the Hanamatsuri program, directed by Chizu Iwanaga and accompanied by Amy (Sugimoto) Yoshida. Thus, the Palo Alto Temple Choir was formed.


Eventually, in 1995, having retired from a lifelong career with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, she decided that a one-story residence was easier and moved to Danville, closer to Rio’s home. Her eldest son, Dr. Gordon Mutsumi Iwanaga, passed away in 1990 of a heart attack. We remained close and worked on presentations, including teaching doyo buyo and ondo at Senshin Buddhist Church at Rev. Mas Kodani’s request. Rev. Kodani’s book, “Gathering of Joy,” is dedicated to Rev. and Mrs. Iwanaga.


From Danville, daughter-in-law Kimie Iwanaga would drive her to Palo Alto for activities with Tomonikai, the senior group. Oakland Sangha members Dick and Agnes Sasaki would pick her up for rehearsals in Oakland so that the Oakland choir could perform for its centennial commemoration.


Chizu Iwanaga traveled widely, especially on cruises, was a gourmet chef, opera lover, and a grandmother to six, and a great-grandmother. She passed away in 2007 and, at her memorial service, was honored with a spontaneous performance by members of her many choirs singing “Ondokusan.” The original record albums are planned for the BCA archives at UCLA and other institutions.


Personal note: My father, Joe Yoshiharu Akahoshi, drove Rev. Iwanaga to towns where Sensei taught obon odori and held recitals. One stop was my mother’s residence, as my grandfather, Niichi Shodo Tatsuda, was a co-founder and supporting Kyoshi minister of the Walnut Grove Buddhist Church. Rev. Iwanaga was one of three officiants at my parents’ wedding. Was it preordained that Mutsu and I would meet at a YBA dance and later marry?


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