Japanese volunteers teach traditional dances at Camp Zama

Members of the Camp Zama community learn a Bon dance at the Community Recreation Center, Camp Zama, Japan, July 18, 2019.
Members of the Camp Zama community learn a Bon dance at the Community Recreation Center, Camp Zama, Japan, July 18, 2019.

Japanese volunteers teach traditional dances at Camp Zama

by Winifred Brown
US Army Garrison - Japan

CAMP ZAMA, Japan (July 24, 2019) – The annual Bon Odori Festival at Camp Zama features traditional folk dances that date back hundreds of years, and after two years of watching, the Espinoza family is done with spectating—this year they want to dance.

First, however, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Roberto Espinoza, his wife Reyna and their four children must learn the dances, which originated from blue-collar workers working, singing and dancing together.

Thanks to the teaching of Masako Kawasaki and Toyoko Akutagawa, volunteers from the Zama City Women’s Association, the family can make their goal a reality. The 60th annual festival will take place on post from 1 to 9 p.m. Aug. 3, and beforehand, the family attended the first of five scheduled lessons with Kawasaki and Akutagawa, who are masters of the dances.

The family got off to a good start with about 40 others, including Col. Thomas Matelski, commander, U.S. Army Garrison Japan, members of his family, and garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Billy Norman, at the Community Recreation Center here July 18, learning the “Dompan Bushi,” the “Soran Bushi,” the “Zama Ondo,” the “Tanko Bushi” and the “Tokyo Ondo.”

“We worked up enough courage to get up there; it’s been good,” said Reyna, mother of Roberto, 12, Raphael, 11, and twins Reyna and Rie, 9. The family said they planned to attend future sessions to improve.

Matelski, attending his first lesson on his second day in command, said he appreciated the lessons and the bonds the festival builds.

“It’s a great way to share between the U.S. and the Japanese communities,” Matelski said, adding that not only is the festival culturally significant, but also enjoyable.

One of Matelski’s goals as commander is to learn about the Japanese community, he said, and the lessons were a great introduction.

“This is my first opportunity to start learning the culture and have some fun,” Matelski said.

Akutagawa and Kawasaki have more than 70 years of combined experience teaching the dances at Camp Zama—Akutagawa for 50 years and Kawasaki for 20.

Kawasaki said that while the dance lessons are part of a partnership between the Zama City Women’s Association and Camp Zama, there is an even bigger reason the pair keeps coming back: It makes them happy.

“Just seeing everyone dancing makes me happy,” said Akutagawa.

Likewise, Kawasaki said members of the Camp Zama community are enthusiastic students, and that makes her happy.

Matelski wasn’t the only newcomer to Japan eager to learn more about the culture.

Sgt. Jennifer Jackson, assigned to Public Health Activity Japan, said she arrived in May and attended the lessons because she wanted to learn something new.

“I think it’s great,” Jackson said. “I’m getting the rhythm of it. It’s pretty easy.”

Veronica Johnson, a civilian employee at the Camp Zama Exchange who arrived about six months ago, said she plans to attend the festival and decided to go to the dance lessons because she wants to make the most of her time in Japan.

“This is a beautiful culture, so I wanted to at least participate in the events that they have here,” Johnson said. “It was fun.”

The remaining dance lessons are from 5 to 6:30 p.m. July 25 and 30 and Aug. 1 at the CRC. Those interested in practicing at home can also see videos on the garrison’s Vimeo page at https://vimeo.com/46060528.

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