Family carries on special legacy with SJ Obon


For siblings Reiko Iwanaga and Kenji Akahoshi, the San Jose Obon is the continuation of a unique legacy started by Iwanaga’s father-in-law, who brought Bon Odori to the American mainland nearly 80 years ago.

Iwanaga, lead choreographer of the San Jose Bon Odori, said that she takes pride in carrying on the Bon Odori movement, which was started by Yoshio Iwanaga.

“I am grateful to have the opportunity to continue the legacy of the Rev. Iwanaga with the Obon Odori, especially as it allows me to remember and embrace his ideas of the odori being for everyone to dance — and not just trained dancers — and that the dances include a mixture of religious and secular, popular numbers,” Iwanaga said via e-mail.

Similarly, Akahoshi, former president of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, has also been closely involved with the Obon.

Iwanaga’s brother has been co-chairman of the Obon festival’s udon concessions for more than 25 years and his wife, Karen, oversees the Obon raffle. He also helps out at the “Introduction to Buddhism” session during the Obon.

Iwanaga’s father-in-law created many of the songs and dances that are performed in the Bon Odori today.

“From what I’ve heard, he was noticed when he visited Hawai‘i from Japan and was asked to come and teach Obon dances and children’s dances on the mainland,” said Iwanaga, whose dance name is Hanayagi Reimichi.

Iwanaga said that this year’s Bon Odori will include some new songs, including “Shiawase Samba.”

“‘Shiawase Samba’ is being danced at many temples, including San Jose. It was danced at the 75th anniversary of the Obon celebration in San Francisco. For us this year, we will dance to a new arrangement, a collaboration between the Chidori Band and San Jose Taiko. About five years ago, with a full agreement from the Chidori Band, I invited San Jose Taiko to accompany the dancers in a few numbers. This will be the first time we will dance to a combined musical ensemble at the same time,” she said.

Iwanaga said that another new dance will be based on Yumi Hojo’s gatha “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day,” using a new taiko arrangement.

“Last year, as I was thinking of a new dance, I thought it would be nice to honor Mrs. Hojo and our heritage of English-language gathas by adapting her song. P.J. Hirabayashi and San Jose Taiko agreed and they worked on a new arrangement and I choreographed a dance. This year, they are refining the arrangement,” Iwanaga said.

Iwanaga said that the process of choreographing Bon Odori dances involves several considerations.

“For me, it is a combination of keeping it simple to make it easy to learn, while remembering to incorporate movements that are beautiful with group movements and also showcase a particular instrument (fan, kachi-kachi, towel, etc.). Also, some numbers are choreographed to the lyrics — as I did when we danced ‘San Jose Ondo’ in honor of our temple’s 100th anniversary,” she said.

Iwanaga said that her favorite dances are the opening and closing dances.

“My favorite is the simple ‘Obon no Uta’ because it was choreographed by the Rev. Iwanaga. This dance always makes me reflect and remember our loved ones, and its familiarity brings back happy memories of many past Obons,” she said.

Iwanaga said that she has been interested in Japanese dance since taking a class as a toddler.

“I started classical Japanese dance lessons at age four and continued ever after. In fact, I recently had the opportunity to participate in Shirley Muramoto’s ‘Hidden Legacy’ program in Los Angeles, a tribute to the teachers of Japanese culture in the internment camps, and came to appreciate the dedication and commitment of those teachers — making costumes and wigs, and finding music and props,” she said.

Iwanaga and Akahoshi have both been active in a variety of areas at the Betsuin. Their early involvement included winning Western Young Buddhist League oratorical contests in different years. They have also both received the Western Adult Buddhist League Award. In addition, Iwanaga taught the Brownie level of the Padma class and Girl Scouts Buddhist badge for many years.

Akahoshi, a retired dentist who is pursuing a career in the ministry, has led the bimonthly evening Dharma Talk and Discussion program for more than 12 years.

He said that Iwanaga has inspired him to become actively involved at the Betsuin over the years.

“Reiko has always been very active in many areas and in leadership positions. Again, by example, she has inspired me to take part in areas that have interested me,” he said.

Akahoshi served as the San Jose Church Betsuin board president in 1995-96 and has been a board member for over 25 years.

He has also held positions as religious education chair, youth adviser, founding board member of Lotus Pre-school, and chairman of various conferences, committees and activities.

Akahoshi said that his decision to leave dentistry and pursue the ministry came from his heart.

“Becoming a minister is an inner calling. It is a decision that comes more from the heart than from a calculated, mental decision. Once I made that decision, the move out of dentistry was easy. The appeal of the Buddhist ministry is the ability to share in the important concerns of fellow members, friends and others. The Buddha-Dharma provides answers to life’s concerns with solutions of harmony and joy,” he said.

Akahoshi, who received a master’s degree from the Institute of Buddhist Studies, said he studied for the ministry while working at his dental practice. A ministerial ordination process will occur in Japan later this year.

“It took me five years since I went part-time, due to my gradual exit from the dental practice,” he said, adding that full-time course work might take two to three years.

Akahoshi, whose placement as a minister will be decided by the socho or bishop of the BCA, said that his goal is to make Buddhism accessible to everyone.

“My goal as a minister is to share the teachings in a way that is relevant to our present life. I have a master’s degree in psychology that enables me to talk about Buddhism to those who have little or no background in Buddhism. Buddhist principles are commonplace in America, and Shin Buddhism offers ordinary people a way to appreciate life’s offerings, both practically and spiritually,” said Akahoshi, who presents a summer retreat every year as a way to share the concepts of Buddhism.

“It is inspiring for me to see people become aware of the positive effects that the Buddhist teachings can have on one’s ordinary life,” he said.

Akahoshi said that he enjoys working with the people whom he has met through his activities at the Betsuin.

“The most rewarding aspect of being a temple member is the friendship and the sense of community in working toward a common goal. It’s very positive to know that others care for you and so it is easy to care for others,” he said.

Akahoshi’s wife Karen has also been involved in community activities as a founder of Suzume no Gakko, a popular summer program for students to learn and experience the Japanese culture.

“She founded Suzume no Gakko with two other friends when our children were young to provide a means of passing on our cultural heritage. Our parents were always active in temple and community activities. It was inspiration by example, and it seemed natural to become active in community affairs. It is also fun and rewarding to work as a community,” he said.

Akahoshi said that his work with the Obon has been gratifying in that it is also an expression of Buddhist teachings.

“I enjoy seeing everyone working hard for the benefit of the temple and community. All participation is voluntary and not for personal gain. Many people may not be aware that the buildings and organizations were provided to us by others very selflessly.

“It is also where the Buddhist teachings come alive, in dealing with the difficult challenges. Buddhism is not just about meditative bliss. It is about changing our usual egocentric needs in favor of the group or community concerns. It is in this expression of working for others that we realize that others have always worked for our benefit. This is the basic message that Shin Buddhism has to offer,” he said.

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