Shozo Sato: Still building bridges

Shozo Sato: Still building bridges

CHAMPAIGN — In September 1945, a month after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Shozo Sato and his father visited the city to look for relatives.

They found none.

"That was a horrible sight to see. I can still see the human shadows on the ground," Sato said last week.

After returning home, Sato, around 12 at the time, wondered why countries had to fight and resort to weapons like the atomic bomb.

"I thought we needed not to depend on government or big industry to rule our lives. I thought we should have more grass-roots cultural bonding between countries, between common people."

He ended up spending most of his life doing that by studying and using traditional Japanese arts to build bridges between cultures.

He had wanted to study the traditional arts of Japan since he was 4; that urge became even stronger after World War II, when most of his peers were adopting Western lifestyles.

"Art has its own voice, so promoting better relationships using the arts rather than opening books — Margaret Erlanger found this appealing too," he said.

It was Erlanger, then head of the UI Dance Department, who invited Sato to campus in 1964 to be an artist-in-residence. She had spent two weeks on a Fulbright in Japan, observing lessons at the school where he taught.

He ended up staying here, becoming a professor in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. Over the years, he influenced countless students, among them actor Nick Offerman, best known for playing the deadpan Ron Swanson on the NBC-TV sitcom "Parks and Recreation." Offerman returned to campus last year to perform his one-man show as a benefit for Japan House, which Sato — the actor's "sensei," or mentor, had founded in 1975.

Sato, though, has spread knowledge of Japanese culture beyond the UI. In 1991, while he was still on faculty here, the consulate-general of Japan in Chicago asked him to narrate a program to be presented in Dayton, Ohio, by a group of villagers from Damine, Japan.

Remarkable tale

The story of how they came to be there is remarkable, said Sato's wife of 40 years, Alice Sato.

It started in 1926, when U.S. missionary Dr. Sidney Gulick, who was working in Japan, sensed that relations between the country and the United States were tense.

So Gulick had more than 12,000 "friendship dolls" sent from U.S. churches and other organizations to schoolchildren in Japan. Eventually, when Japan was at war with the United States, the government ordered the destruction of the "blue-eyed dolls."

Many Japanese citizens hid the dolls. In 1974, some of them began to surface, and Japanese news broadcasters began to tell of them.

One doll was in Damine, with its "papers" intact. They identified the doll as Grace Greene, named after a beloved teacher in Dayton. The Damine villagers decided to return the doll to that city.

During their 1991 visit there, the Damine villagers also presented kabuki theater. Sato was so impressed with the quality of their performance that he has acted as their interpreter-narrator ever since when they come to the United States.

The Damine villagers will perform Thursday evening at Krannert Center, their fourth time there and possibly their last according to Sato.

Four elementary students will open the program with dance. Then the adults from the village will perform "The Monstrous Spider."

Damine villagers have performed kabuki annually for more than 350 years. The tradition started after the village shrine to Kwanyin, the deity of mercy, was burned down.

The villagers felt they had to rebuild it — even though the shogun government was forbidding the use of trees from the Imperial Forest.

Damine went ahead and used some to rebuild the shrine, pledging they would perform kabuki every year in honor of Kwanyin if she prevented Damine from being punished by the government.

That summer, a shogun envoy visited to check on the forest around Damine. A snow had fallen and blanketed the woods, saving the people of Damine from the government's wrath.


Sato said the Damine kabuki players are considered amateurs by some but actually are semi-professional. Their knowledge of the art form has been passed down through generations.

"Many villages like Damine are remote so the public had a hard time going to cities to see kabuki, so they do their own," said Shozo, who has visited Damine twice to direct kabuki there.

He is an expert in the highly stylized Japanese art form that combines dance, mime and song, with the performers wearing elaborate makeup. In particular, he's known as the first artist to adapt Shakespeare and Greek tragedies to kabuki.

Besides Krannert Center, he's presented Western plays kabuki-style at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and in New York, Chicago, Hungary, Cyprus and Jerusalem.

At the UI

After coming to the UI in 1964, Sato taught traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging) and Sumi-e, or black-ink drawing and calligraphy.

To further his teachings, he converted an old, university-owned house on California Street in Urbana into a place where tea ceremony and other lessons could be taught traditional Japanese settings. The home later was demolished to make way for development on campus.

His "hippie students" at the time appreciated his Zen teachings so much they petitioned the university to add traditional Japanese arts to the curriculum. As a result, Sato became a professor in 1969, retiring in 1992.

Sato wasn't exactly welcomed by everyone on campus at first. And he also drew stares in the community because there were few Asians living here then.

"When I attended my first faculty meeting, a senior professor pointed his finger at me and said, 'Hey, you Jap, what do you think you are going to teach us?'" Sato wrote in his bilingual book "Soul of Japan: Introducing Traditional Japanese Arts to the New Generations" (Keio University Press, 2005).

That episode remained "deeply etched" in his mind over the years.

Sato, though, believes his endeavors have been successful. He established many friendships and pointed to the fact that Japan House is going strong despite receiving only minimal funding from the university.

After Sato left Illinois, Kimiko Gunji took over Japan House, raising money including in Japan for the new facility, which continues to be supported mainly by private donations.

Shozo and Alice Sato will bequeath their estates to Japan House; he already donated to the facility his traditional arts equipment when he retired.

Official honor

After retiring, Sato moved to Fort Bragg, Calif., to establish the Center for Japanese Arts in Northern California. He and Alice stayed there until two years ago, when they came here so Shozo could direct a kabuki version of "Lady MacBeth" at Krannert Center.

They decided to stay for several reasons. One was Alice's health. She had been hospitalized and in a coma and nearly died, and the nearest hospital to Fort Bragg was two and a half hours away over mountains.

Also, her husband had roots and friends here in Champaign-Urbana, said Alice Sato, who was born in Colorado and taught biology in Denver before meeting Sato. She helps him with his books; he first writes them in Japanese and then translates his writing to English.

His best-known books are "Ikebana: The Art of Arranging Flowers" and "Sumi-e: The Art of Japanese Ink Painting."

Another reason the couple left Fort Bragg: They were no longer able to keep up their property there. Her husband's studio there alone covered 1,500 square feet.

Now he works at a small table near a window in their condo in Champaign. His sumi-e brushes and paint are neatly arranged on the table, where he continues to create traditional black-ink and watercolor paintings.

Forty-eight of them are on view through Nov. 30 at the San Angelo (Texas) Museum of Fine Arts as part of the exhibition "Eastern Illumination: Japanese Masterworks by Shozo Sato and American Art Inspired by Japanese Traditions."

Sato also keeps up with the other traditional arts; earlier this semester, he taught Japanese cooking at Japan House and plans to teach there again this spring.

For his life work, Sato received in 2004 the Order of the Sacred Treasure with Rosette from the emperor of Japan.

If you go

What: Damine Kabuki, students and adults from the Damine Elementary School in Japan present dances and "The Monstrous Spider," a kabuki piece. Narrated by University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Shozo Sato

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Colwell Playhouse, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U

Tickets: $29 for adults; $24, senior citizens; $15, non-UI students; $10, UI students and youths

Information: 333-6280 or

Note: The show starts 30 minutes earlier than most Krannert events and is recommended for people 5 and up. It is sold out; if interested, get on the waiting list.

Also: Sato and the Damine Kabuki troupe will give a talk about kabuki at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Japan House, 2000 S. Lincoln Ave., U. The event is free and open to all.

Topics (3):Art, People, Theater