Back in her hometown of Yokohama, the boys in school called her “Iron Woman.” Raised with two sisters by a peace activist mother and a protofeminist father, Ayako Kato had assumed equal footing with her coed peers and was known for speaking her mind. A student of ballet from ages 4 to 19, Kato (a stage name) embodied discipline and balance, with deference to her cultural inheritance weighted against her indignation over everyday wrongs. Her story of coming to America — and coming into her own as an individual and a dancer — centers on these opposing forces.
“My father grew up in wartime, so in school he learned to worship the Emperor,” Kato says. At age 15, he joined the naval academy at Etajima in Hiroshima Bay. It was spring of 1945, and he was spared battle when the war ended soon after.
“My father demonstrated the customs of navy school at home, like waking up on time, making the bed — discipline!” Kato says. And he was such a common sight hanging laundry and sweeping outside the family home that the neighborhood men eventually followed his lead.
Although her mother was busy raising three children, she was a tireless volunteer. In a Red Cross audio project for the blind, Kato says, “she recorded the entire ‘Tale of Genji’ on nights at home while we slept. Fifty-four volumes, recorded on 75 one-hour reels, over 7½ years.” Both parents wrote poetry.
Although her young life centered on dance, Kato put aside her passion soon after entering the International Studies Department at Meiji Gakuin University, feeling a need to “be useful.” At the time, Japan-bashing was growing in tandem with the nation’s economic might, driving the “Buy American” movement stateside and furthering stereotypes such as the “Nō to ienai Nihonjin” (“Japanese who can’t say no”).
Kato pursued peace studies, environmental studies and Korean history before settling on religion and philosophy as potential keys to global understanding.
“I decided I wanted to be the person who can explain why Japanese people can be ambiguous,” she recalls.
For her thesis, Kato focused on fūryū (literally, “wind flow”), a conceptually deep aesthetic associated with poet Matsuo Basho that espouses the beauty of being true to one’s own nature. As one professor of Buddhism studies once explained, Japanese oscillate between the worldly and sacred on their journey through life, recognizing themselves as a part of nature and reality as a state of flux. In this way, Japanese do not say yes or no because they do not see black and white but a spectrum. “They sense all in between, the complexity,” Kato says.
Basho was a revelation for Kato. She was moved by his testament to the beauty of following one’s path, however fruitless. Still, she resisted her own calling.
“Dance,” she reasoned, “it goes away. It’s so ephemeral.”
After briefly seeking purpose at a pottery company where the art was tangible but gender inequalities blatant, Kato moved to America, accepting a supporting role to her then partner, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in development economics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“I was 24. I thought I could realize my dream through him, being useful to people in other countries even indirectly,” she says. “Of course, I didn’t have my own identity then.”
After three years of crushing self-denial, Kato once again surrendered herself to dance, starting with classes at the local community college. As fate would have it, her first teacher there made the connection she’d sought her whole life by inviting her to choreograph a dance commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima.
“After that I thought, ‘Dance can be useful! Peace and dance,'” Kato says.
Kato went on to get her master’s degree in fine arts at the University of Michigan. The program was inspiring and the work liberating. There, Kato embraced fūryū, American style.
“My ballet teacher (in Japan) was so strict. I felt human goodness never came into question if we couldn’t dance well enough,” Kato says. So for an assignment on the subject of why she danced, she wrote, “Each of us has this shining value. And each life has meaning. And through dance, I would like to express this as ‘beauty of being’.”
Kato embraced her calling. “That became my goal,” she says, “and I have been pursuing it since.”
Now based in Chicago with her American musician husband and their young daughter, Kato is an award-winning contemporary dancer, choreographer, curator, and teacher, promoting fūryū in her multidisciplinary collaborations and improvisations with national and international musicians.
“Conditions here are really nurturing me as an artist,” she says. Unlike in Japan, she explains, opportunity is more equal, experimenting is encouraged and support in the community, particularly among women, is strong.
“In Japan, you need to win a competition to receive funding. And who’s deciding who gets what is still often male and seniority dependent,” she says. Because of this, artists may find themselves catering to the tastes of judges or the masses; they may make sacrifices for others. “I love the Japanese concept of wa, the circle, taking care,” says Kato, “but it also makes us quiet.”
Life in America, of course, is not without difficulty. “Actually, the culture shock is ongoing,” Kato says. “Segregation, discrimination. Up until recently, since music and dance people, artists (in general) are very open, I believed that people were pretty open here.”
Then her daughter reached school age and the country elected Donald Trump president, opening Kato to a wider spectrum of the public and perceived everyday scrutiny.
“Even I was not thinking ‘I am an immigrant’ until the last election,” Kato says.
But she has found valuable perspective in the changing era, for the first time reflecting on her relationship with her mother country and how she has grown in her adopted one. America, she realized, has been a sort of training ground for making her own decisions, expressing her own ideas and taking action. “Even if someone is older than me or if it’s my husband, I can express my own opinions now.”
Before, she always deferred to men and to her elders; “Iron Woman” or not, Kato realized the dictates of Japanese society were stronger than she’d thought.
“It’s the Japanese tendency to try to accommodate others’ opinions,” she says. “I love Japan. And sensitivity, niceness, awareness, caring, compassion, charity, delicacy, humanity, sympathy — I hope Japanese people keep these beautiful traditions.” However, she doesn’t think they should come at the expense of self-cultivation, of people “being themselves, succeeding that beauty.”
Although Kato’s daughter is bilingual, has a Japanese community in Chicago and visits family in Japan about once a year, Kato still works to temper some of her American habits.
“Today,” Kato laughs, “I was like, ‘Please don’t throw your food (down on the table). Put it down gently.’ ‘Don’t put your feet on the table.'” The influence of Japan must also be tempered.
“Speaking to elderly people and teachers with respect — that’s important,” Kato says. “But I hope she is nicely opinionated. I don’t want her withdrawing or putting herself down because she is a girl.”
Kato herself is still learning how to negotiate these dual cultures. “When you are demure in Japan, everything opens up,” she says. “So in Japan, I say, ‘Sumimasen, sumimasen‘ to get through a crowd, although my inner voice is saying, ‘Doite! Doite!‘ (‘Get out of my way!’).”
In the United States, meanwhile, she’s learning to loosen the reins on her emotions to be more effective.
“I needed something done (at the bank recently) and the teller said no. So I got upset, and the bank teller said, ‘OK.’ And I was like, ‘OK?! Is that how it works? You get angry and things get done?'” Kato laughs. “In Japan, it’s so strict. If you lose your train ticket, you have to pay — ‘Dame desu.’ But here, you might be able to explain. I like that. It’s really negotiable.”
In America, Kato is learning the freedom of just being. “This culture asks, ‘Who are you, as a human?’ and I love that. That makes me grow as an artist. Everyone is different, and people admit the difference — that’s the beauty of it here.”
Even in the face of growing problems, the dancer finds purpose. “It’s the artist’s work to challenge things and work to change them.”
Name: Ayako Kato
Profession: Choreographer, dancer, curator
Key moments in career:
1994 — Choreographs a dance commemorating the Hiroshima bombing
1998 — Gets a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of Michigan
2016 — Wins the 3Arts Awards in dance
Life philosophy: “Life is ephemeral so live fully.”
Things I miss about Japan: People, food, baths.
1994年 シカゴの「広島デー」で踊りの 振り付けを担当
1998年 ミシガン大学ダンス学科で芸術学 修士号を取得
2016年 シカゴのアーティストに贈られる 3Arts Awards を受賞
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5