CAMP ZAMA, Japan (July 30, 2021) – Two women who have spent a combined five-plus decades teaching a centuries-old touchstone of Japanese culture to Camp Zama residents were recognized earlier this month for their support to the community here.
Toyoko Akutagawa, 85, and Masako Kawasaki, 77, were the guests of honor at an appreciation luncheon that former U.S. Army Garrison Japan Commander Col. Thomas R. Matelski hosted July 7 at the Camp Zama Community Club, a few weeks before his change of command, along with Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Col. Kazuya Ono, commander of the JGSDF’s 4th Engineer Group.
Akutagawa has been supporting Camp Zama’s Bon Odori Festival as a volunteer Bon dance instructor for more than 30 years, and Kawasaki has done the same for more than 20 years.
Both Matelski and Ono expressed their appreciation to Akutagawa and Kawasaki for their years of support to the Camp Zama community.
“It’s a great symbol of the friendship between two countries, and it continues the partnership between Camp Zama and Zama City,” Matelski said.
Akutagawa was modest about her three decades spent as a volunteer Bon dance instructor, saying that even though it seems like a long time, it has “really flown, especially because [she] was enjoying what [she] was doing.”
“I didn’t do anything special; I only did what I could and what I enjoy,” Akutagawa said. “I feel very humble and grateful to be invited to this luncheon.”
Akutagawa recalled that her relationship with Camp Zama started about 50 years ago when she became a member of the Zama City Spouses Association, which had a relationship with the association at Camp Zama.
Originally, Akutagawa said her role in Camp Zama’s Bon Odori Festival was performing the different Bon dances with her team for attendees and spectators at the event. Her group also helped senior Army leaders with how to properly wear a “yukata,” a lightweight kimono worn during the warmer months, and especially during Japan’s “Obon” season.
Then about 30 years ago, many Camp Zama community members began expressing a desire to learn the many different Bon dance moves so they could perform them at the festival, Akutagawa said.
From that summer, and every one since then, Akutagawa has been coming to Camp Zama as an instructor. She said she looks forward to teaching the dances and spending time with Camp Zama community members, despite not speaking any English.
Each year, Akutagawa said she is very impressed to see the community members learn each of the different Bon dance moves within a lesson that lasts only a few hours. She said she feels pride when she later sees the dancers at the festival showcasing what they learned.
“Bon dancing doesn’t require language,” Akutagawa said. “It’s nothing but having fun.”
Kawasaki, who has been volunteering as a dance instructor for more than 20 years, said the traditional Bon dance music begins “ringing in her ears” as soon as summer approaches, and she can’t help but get excited about the Bon Odori Festival.
That anticipation made last year all the more disappointing, when the 2020 Bon Odori Festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kawasaki said.
“I didn’t realize Bon dancing had become such a big part of my life until the festival was canceled last year,” Kawasaki said.
The festival will resume this year, though it will be a “closed-post” event, open only to those with valid ID access to the installation. In previous years, the festival typically attracted tens of thousands of Japanese visitors.
Kawasaki was so eager to participate in this year’s festival, not even an injury could hold her back. In February she fell and fractured her shoulder, and the first thing that came to her mind was that she had to get better by the summer, so as not to miss Bon Odori.
“Bon dancing helped motivate me to undergo rehabilitation,” Kawasaki said. “Bon dancing gave me a reason to get better quicker.”
There is a reason Kawasaki feels as strongly as she does about preserving the cultural tradition.
Kawasaki said she and Akutagawa are the last generation in their team who are able to continue to support Camp Zama’s Bon Odori Festival, so she feels a responsibility to maintain the relationship with Camp Zama and teach dancing as long as her physical strength lasts.
“I would like to continue to be the bridge between the Zama City Spouses Association and the Camp Zama community as long as Camp Zama needs us,” Kawasaki said.
Akutagawa and Kawasaki will resume supporting the festival this year in a different way due to COVID-19 precautions.
Both came to a studio on Camp Zama July 26 in advance of the festival to record a series of instructional videos on the different Bon dances and how to wear a yukata. The videos will be made available to the community here. Akutagawa and Kawasaki will also provide unit representatives with limited Bon dance lessons during the first week of August.
Camp Zama is scheduled to host its 61st annual Bon Odori Festival Aug. 28.