From San Jose to Asuka Village: Obon in Japan

OBON IN JAPAN — Jeff Asai (L) at the Asuka Bon Odori courtesy of Jeff Asai

“Do you do Bon Odori?” I asked Michino, one of my fifth-grade students in Japan. She replied in the negative.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s kind of embarrassing.”

“Really? Then who dances?”

“Mostly old people.”

“Or little kids,” chimed in Mizuki, one of Michino’s classmates.

Huh. I can’t really picture not dancing at an Obon. Then again, I’m used to the San Jose Obon, which manages around 1,000 dancers a year.

Come to think of it, the Obon festival I went to in my village, Asuka, had no more than 50 or so dancers. Of course, since it’s only a village festival and the population of Asuka is around 6,000 people, the scale is a bit different from San Jose Obon.

In hopes that perhaps I could get some perspective on a larger Obon, I asked the students if they had been to any other Obon outside of our village. Once again, Michino gave a reply:

“Yes. I went to an Obon festival in Kumamoto, by my grandmother’s house.”

“How was it compared to Asuka’s Obon festival?”

“It wasn’t really that good, since it was small.”

“Huh? It’s smaller than Asuka?”

“Yeah, the Asuka Obon is pretty big since it’s the whole village.”

Apparently, asking a 10-year-old for a comparison scale is not the best idea. I pulled aside a co-worker for a middle-aged adult perspective. Ms. Tachibana, our fourth-grade teacher, elaborated a bit more. In the countryside, there are many Bon festivals and a lot of them are held in local districts, making them quite small. In other words, there are many Obon in each city and it’s not common to go to Obon outside of your area — even if they have good chicken.

I told Ms. Tachibana about the students’ reaction to dancing, and she agreed. In fact, they cut out Obon dancing at her local Obon, since there was no one who wanted to do it.

“So, did you dance before that?”

“No, not really. Because no one else was dancing.”

I told her about San Jose Obon. She was surprised that they celebrate Obon in America, and that so many people participate in the dance.

“Do you dance to Japanese music?” she asked.

“Yep.”

Tsuki ga, deta deta?” She sang a line from “Tanko Bushi.”

A yoi yoi!” I tried to complete.

“Huh?”

“Uh, yeah. We have that song.”

(Unfortunately, a lot of my conversations in Japanese go like that.)

Although dancing isn’t so popular with the people I’ve talked to, most of them live in Nara, which is a bit countryside. There are some famous Bon dances, like Tokushima’s Awa-odori, which brings in tourists from all over Japan. I also saw a four-story yagura in Kobe, with several hundred people spread out in four large rings. On the other hand, I talked to another teacher who lives in Osaka and says that she has never been to an Obon festival, because there isn’t one in her area. So I suppose Bon festivals vary from place to place.

One of the common themes for all of the Obon is that it’s a festive atmosphere. The Asuka Obon has games, food stalls, stage shows and fireworks at the end. Some people dress up in yukata although just as many wear jeans and shirts. Happi coats aren’t usually worn at Obon (although they are worn at some other festivals).

Of course a festival is supposed to be festive, but as Obon is often called a ‘festival of the dead’ it might seem a bit odd that everything is quite so lively. I asked my father-in-law, Fumiaki Hosokawa, about the origins of Obon, since he’s a Buddhist monk and Obon is a Buddhist tradition.

He explained the story of Mokuren, who, to make a long story short, found out his dead mother was in a pretty bad place. With the advice of Shakyamuni Buddha, he ended up saving her. From what I understood (and I certainly didn’t understand everything since it was all in Japanese) Obon is a time for the family to come together and pray at the family grave to ensure they pass into paradise.

The word for this passing is “Uranbana/Ullambana” in Sanskrit, which then changed to “Urabon” when Buddhism was brought to China, and changed to Obon when it was introduced in Japan. Mokuren managed to free his mother on July 15, which is why we often celebrate Obon around that time.

Some places (in particular the Kansai area) observe Obon on Aug. 15, because it coincides with the older Japanese calendar. Another reason is because nobody wants to have a festival in a typhoon. (Just look at what happened in “Karate Kid Part II”!)

There are many differences between American and Japanese Obon. The scale, the food, the dancing… But the important part — the spirit in which the community comes together and families and friends gather — is the same.

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei from the South Bay Area of Northern California, is teaching English in the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan.

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