Camp Zama choir director celebrates 40 years on the job

Shunji Sakita, director of the choir for the Holy Family Catholic Community, sings and directs the choir at the Camp Zama Chapel, Camp Zama, Japan, Feb. 17.
Shunji Sakita, director of the choir for the Holy Family Catholic Community, sings and directs the choir at the Camp Zama Chapel, Camp Zama, Japan, Feb. 17.

Camp Zama choir director celebrates 40 years on the job

by Winifred Brown
U.S. Army Garrison - Japan

CAMP ZAMA, Japan (March 1, 2020) – About 45 years ago, Shunji Sakita was a guest conductor for the 296th Army Band here, and then one day a member of the Holy Family Catholic Community asked him to replace the choir director who was leaving.

“I told him, ‘No, I cannot do that,’ but he said, ‘You can do it,’” Sakita recalled. He agreed to take the position until they could find someone else. That person, however, never appeared.

“I waited, waited, waited, and I’ve spent more than 40 years now [waiting],” said Sakita, who celebrated his latest anniversary in the position Jan. 28.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Alan Irizarry, deputy and operations chaplain for U.S. Army Japan and Catholic priest who oversees the Holy Family Catholic Community, said Sakita has done an extraordinary job leading the choir.

“The results of his phenomenal ministry have greatly enriched each liturgical service,” Irizarry said.

Not only is Sakita a talented musician who plays the piano, organ and guitar, he has also improved the community by inviting service members from other military installations, retirees and local nationals to attend Catholic services, Irizarry said.

Although Sakita wants people to think of him solely as the on-contract choir director, when pressed, he will admit he is the director of the Tokyo Classic String Ensemble and of the Tokyo S.G.S Opera, in addition to overseeing his own conducting studio.

He has also worked with the Japan National Theatre, the Japanese National Opera and the Korean National Ballet, and has conducted the Rachmaninoff, Schumann and Chopin piano concertos, as well as operas ranging from Menotti to Verdi.

Sakita said that although he did not know a lot about the Catholic religion when he started the job, he did have an interest in the religion, and about 35 years ago he became Catholic.

Over the years Sakita has met many people at Camp Zama, and his lasting impression is that people are kind and willing to help.

“I count every time somebody helps me, and I have had a great time in Zama,” Sakita said. “If I had kind of a hard time from somebody, more than that I could be helped by some other American people. That’s why I cannot stop. I like this job very much.”

In addition, Sakita has worked for more than 20 priests, who are usually Army chaplains who stay for two or three years and then move to another assignment. Sometimes, however, they are civilian priests who fill in temporarily.

Sakita said the size of the choir has fluctuated over the years, with a high of about 30 members, to a low of about 10. Now, because of COVID-19, the size is smaller. He appreciates all the members, however.

“They do a good job and also they are very nice people,” Sakita said. “I like them very much.”

Sakita said he has also enjoyed working with U.S. Army bands over the years.

When Sakita was 27 he wanted to compete in the Mozarteum Conductor’s Competition in Saltzburg, Austria, and he had to have two letters of recommendation. He said he was proud to present one from his Japanese conducting teacher and another from the U.S. Army band.

In addition, Sakita has also worked with Japan Ground Self-Defense Force bands and serves as an inspector for them.

Members of the Catholic community appreciate Sakita’s talent and experience in the choir director position.

Irizarry said it is important to remember the many duties Sakita fulfills as choir director: He schedules and leads choir rehearsals; conducts and leads performances; recruits and auditions new singers and volunteers; fosters each singer’s musical growth; and appoints section leaders, soloists and assistant conductors.

Sakita is also responsible for choosing the choir’s performance pieces, preparing special programs for holidays or special occasions, and working alongside the church organist, Irizarry said.

That last responsibility, however, is not a difficult one. The church organist is his wife, Takako Sakita and she is a renowned concert pianist. Sakita said she began playing organ for the choir about 13 years ago.

Peggy Flavan-Brown, a community member who has been a choir member for more than nine years, said she is thankful for the contributions of both Sakitas.

“They’re both really gifted, and they’re both so humble,” Flavan-Brown said. “They just share their gifts so modestly and try to encourage others and … pass on this deep love of music and of fellowship.”

As a choir director, however, Sakita in particular has helped her considerably, Flavan-Brown said.

Flavan-Brown described herself as a “warbler” when she started on the choir in 2002, and said Sakita helped her improve her pitch and become a stronger singer.

“I really do think it’s a project of love and a project of passion for him to be here for so long and for him to help with everybody,” Flavan-Brown said. “He is so unassuming.”

Sakita said he encourages people to join the all-volunteer choir and always welcomes new members.

“I am having fun here,” said Sakita, reflecting on his time at Camp Zama. “Even myself, I can’t believe 40 years have passed already.”

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