Teacher Helps Japanese-Americans Brush Up on Their Heritage

Times Staff Writer

Unlike some artists who toil for years to find their niche, Shun Kohrogi at 27 has already found his as a painter and teacher in the South Bay's Japanese-American community.

The demand for Kohrogi's classes comes from parents of Japanese descent who want their children to learn art according to Japanese traditions and in a mostly Japanese-speaking environment.

Kohrogi provides that setting at the Gardena-based Saga Children's Art Center, founded by his mother, Masae Saga, in 1970.

In Japan, art has more prominence in the educational system than in the United States, Kohrogi said. Much of the art curriculum in Japanese schools is standardized and taught with government-issued books and materials, he said.

Some parents who were reared in Japan want the same emphasis on art education for their children that they had, Kohrogi said.

Developing Discipline

"In Japan," Kohrogi said, "art is required from kindergarten to the ninth grade, so many Japanese kids know how to draw. We believe in Japan that art develops your discipline. When you start, you have to finish."

Many parents believe that the study of art teaches endurance as well as discipline, which are necessary for marathon academic study sessions of up to five hours after school, Kohrogi said.

"I think that's one reason we are so successful in academics," Kohrogi said.

Kohrogi estimates that he has taught about 12,000 children the basic principles of art in after-school and weekend programs. Some of his students are children of Japanese business people whose companies relocate them to the United States for a few years. Others are local children of Japanese descent.

Although similar courses emphasizing Japanese art are taught at the Japanese Cultural Institute in Gardena and in other communities, the Saga Art Center is the most broad-based, with courses taught in Gardena, Rolling Hills Estates, West Los Angeles, Montebello, Anaheim and Honolulu.

Graduate students teach the Honolulu course and will teach courses planned for Pasadena and West Covina, Kohrogi said.

But the bulk of the teaching is done by Kohrogi himself. He has about 250 students, aged 3 to 18, he said.

About 90% of his students are Japanese-American, Kohrogi said. The school reaches most of its students through advertisements in Japanese-language newspapers.

Classes are held at rented spaces in community centers, churches and Japanese cultural organizations, Kohrogi said. The school charges $30 a month for weekly 90-minute lessons.

Mineko Hanaka of Rancho Palos Verdes, who brings her 6-year-old daughter Aiko to weekly art sessions, says the fee is worth it.

"In Aiko's school there are no art classes, (only) finger-painting," Hanaka said. "I need more. Here, she is thinking. (Her) spelling, handwriting are neater."

Aiko's classes, held at First Baptist Church of Palos Verdes, serve another purpose, said Hanaka, whose family moved to Rolling Hills when her husband's career required a move from Tokyo to Los Angeles 2 years ago.

"When she came here she had no Japanese friends, maybe one or two at school," Hanaka said. In Kohrogi's classes, she said, her daughter "can meet Japanese friends, and the feeling is comfortable."

Kohrogi's ability to foster a comfortable feeling among his students may stem in part from his own traditional background.

Move to the U.S.

Born in Miyazaki, Japan, he attended school there until he was 11. In 1970, Kohrogi's parents moved to the United States to teach Japanese art as visiting professors at the University of Minnesota.

Two years later they moved to Southern California, eventually settling in Gardena because of the potential for marketing their art in that city's large Japanese community and in other Southern California communities with large Japanese populations.

Just as Kohrogi's parents, both of whom are artists, taught him to appreciate the beauty of seeing and creating art, Kohrogi said he has taken up the same mission for schoolchildren.

"I want to be their environment, so they could learn as I did," he said.

Working alongside his mother has assured a continuity of curriculum, he said. Masae Saga still teaches art classes for the center in Anaheim, and she remains the school's guiding spirit. Through an interpreter, Saga, 48, a batik artist who works from a studio in her Gardena home, said she started the center in the hope that her courses would compensate for what she saw as a lack of advanced art instruction in American schools.

Kohrogi's "Japanese method of teaching art" incorporates not only discipline but principles of Buddhism, he said.

Life 'Always Will Be'

"In Buddhism, life is mushi-mushu , no beginning and no ending," Kohrogi said. Life "has always been there and always will be, and when you die you fuse back into the universe."

In 1984, Kohrogi's religious beliefs were put to the test when, just before he was to begin graduate school at UCLA, he nearly lost his life in a car accident.

"My skull was fractured into little pieces and I lost a huge amount of blood from my head," Kohrogi wrote later in a paper explaining the influence of the accident on his work. "The doctor told my mother that I would be unconscious for at least 2 months and that I would either die, become insane, crippled or lose my sight."

Just days after the accident, however, Kohrogi regained consciousness, and 2 weeks later he was released from the hospital. He credits his recovery to his Buddhist beliefs and the "life force" generated by the Buddhist chants of his friends as he lay unconscious in the hospital.

Seven weeks after the accident, Kohrogi was back at work, trying to translate his renewed inspiration and his reinforced Buddhist beliefs to canvas in oversized 9-by-8-foot paintings.

The cyclic principle of mushi-mushu weaves through his life and his art, Kohrogi said, in the desire to teach as his parents taught before him and in the "repetitious rhythms" in his own work.

Master's Degree

After the accident, Kohrogi earned a master's degree in art and teaching with his wife, Sukue, whom he met while he was an exchange art student at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Kohrogi has plans to expand the Saga Children's Art Center, opening branches in San Francisco, San Diego, Pasadena and West Covina, he said.

Kohrogi and his wife are moving to a new home in Torrance, converting the garage into an art studio. But for now, he said, his life is focused on teaching art by one principle.

"If you teach them the basics, anybody can draw," he said.

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