A very different kind of Obon

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I remember vaguely visiting Pereira Barreto at the edge of the state of São Paulo near the great dam established on the River Tietê. This was many years ago in the ’70s. I believe I crossed over the river to Tres Lagoas in Mato Grosso and experienced an Obon there.

I don’t know if it was in July, though I doubt it. July is a very cold month, winter in Brazil. It’s important to remember how the seasons are inverted in the Southern Hemisphere, and this makes for a very different kind of Obon festival, always celebrated in the heat of summer in Japan.

In any case, I remember the Obon as being absolutely authentic to my understanding.  The community had built a tall large tower from which the musicians played and sang.  Below, the community members were dressed in yukata and dancing Bon Odori around the tower. It was real music and real singing. I had never witnessed anything like it, even in Japan.

When I returned to Japan in 1997, my family and I joined an Obon event in Toyota City, where there were and still are many Japanese Brazilians working in factories for the car industry. I was surprised to see that the music came from a tape recorder that was blasted from loudspeakers. No musicians. No singers. No drummers. Maybe it’s my poor memory, but I think there were interspersed a few Brazilian tunes to the amusement and pleasure of the crowd.

Karen Tei Yamashita is a professor of literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz. A Sansei from Southern California, she lived in Brazil for nine years and has written five novels, including “Brazil Maru” and the just-released “I-Hotel.”

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