The Sakura Singers Society will be performing at the 42nd annual Powell Street Festival on Aug. 5. The Sakura Singers’ repertoire covers more than 250 Japanese songs, focusing on folk songs and choral suites, and the choir is always looking for new members to join, seeking to share Japanese culture with those who wish to listen.
“The Sakura Singers dedicated its services to communities with numerous performances, with its mission to promote the enjoyment of Japanese songs and a better understanding and appreciation by all Canadians pertaining to Japanese Canadian culture,” says Joyce Kamikura, the choir’s executive director.
Kamikura notes that the choice to name the choir after the sakura, or cherry blossom, was intentional, with the flower acting as a symbol for its cultural and artistic roots.
“People have been picnicking under the blooming trees since 700 A.D., a tradition that continues today,” says Kamikura. “Our choral name reflects that we are a group deeply rooted in Japanese culture.”
Finding culture and community
“There are certain things very common with our choir members. They love to sing in Western classic style, but in Japanese. Most members do not like to perform solo, rather sing in harmony with others. Most members are first generation Japanese who prefer to speak in Japanese, while a small number of members are non-Japanese but can speak Japanese,” says Kamikura.
Kamikura says many long-standing members have found a sense of community while singing together with others who have ties to both Canada and Japan.
“I think many Japanese speakers find comfort in joining The Sakura Singers for sharing a common cultural background, learning to sing in Japanese, under the [musical] directorship of Ruth Suzuki who speaks perfect English, Japanese and Chinese,” says Kamikura.
Sakura lost and found
While noting the sakura’s synonymity with Japanese culture, Kamikura says her own connection with Japan had been at a distance for some time, not only geographically, but also culturally. She was born in Richmond but moved to Japan at a young age, and then moved back to Canada at age 9. After 30 years of speaking only English in Canada, Kamikura says she had forgotten the Japanese language. That is, until she found the Sakura Singers.
Upon attempting to learn piano as an adult, and initially believing instrument quality to be the problem, Kamikura eventually figured that despite her great talent and success in painting, pursuing music as an artistic avenue just might not be for her. Kamikura puts it bluntly:
“I found that I have absolutely no musical talent. I got a grand piano but found that it’s not the piano’s fault, but it is my lack of music skill which prevented me from advancing in this field,” says Kamikura.
And yet, Kamikura says that she wanted to sing in a group with others, and found the Sakura Singers Society to be much easier to keep up with’ than others, despite not having spoken the choir’s language in close to 30 years. Kamikura doesn’t seem to be the only one who finds more than just musical excitement from the choir.
Kamikura is also an accomplished visual artist and a member of the Federation of Canadian Artists. Many of her acrylic works present natural scenes, often warm and lush, and yet despite her many portraits of flowers – peonies and poppies, lilies, tulips, hibiscus and daffodils – the Canadian-born Japan-raised executive director of the Sakura Singers Society choir doesn’t have any works boasting the popular Japanese flower: cherry blossoms.
While absent in Kamikura’s oeuvre, she discusses the significance, history and ubiquity of the sakura in Japanese art and culture, both classical and contemporary.
“In a spiritual sense, the sakura represents life which is short and beautiful, just like the cherry blossom that falls from the tree after just a few days. This is tied to the Buddhist roots of Japan. It’s the most commonly used symbol of mortality in all types of art. The cherry blossom became so popular in the Heian era of Japan’s history that the word for flower became synonymous with sakura.”
For Kamikura, and many others in the choir, it’s about making the most of life, doing so by sharing in celebration of a rich culture and tradition, through language and song.