Contemporary Bon Odori standardized in SoCal


Bon Odori at the Los Angeles Nishi Hongwanji. photo by Glen Tao/Nishi Hongwanji

LOS ANGELES – Summertime is the season for tens of thousands of Nikkei in Southern California to celebrate Obon, a traditional Buddhist event to honor and express gratitude to one’s ancestors for the gift of life.

“Obon is the most important festival in the year cycle, it’s remembering the dead,” said the Rev. Masao Kodani (retired) of Senshin Buddhist Temple.

“The focus is on the meaning of Obon. There will be Bon Odori (dancing), which is for religious significance.”

According to Kodani, Obon comes from the story of Mokuren (Mogallana), a disciple of the Buddha who, while in a deep meditative state, saw his mother suffering in a hellish condition. The Buddha advised Mokuren to make an offering to his fellow monks at the end of a retreat. Then, seeing his mother released from her torment, Mokuren danced for joy. This dance of joy is seen as the original Bon Odori. The offering of clothing and food to the monks is popularly seen to be the act which affected Mokuren’s mother’s release, hence the offering of food, lights, and entertainment at Obon.

Bon Odori at the Los Angeles Nishi Hongwanji. photo by Glen Tao/Nishi Hongwanji
Bon Odori at the Los Angeles Nishi Hongwanji. photo by Glen Tao/Nishi Hongwanji

During Obon festivals, the highlight for Japanese Buddhist temples is the Bon Odori. “We dance just for the joy of dancing, it’s the idea of coming together and dancing whether you could do the dance or not,” the Los Angeles-born priest emphasized.

Bon Odori is “a spirited activity in which we dance without fretting over how one looks, no showing off one’s ability, no flaunting,” he continued. “Just dance … and you will feel true fulfillment and pure, ego-less joy.”

English Language Dances
Kodani has had a keen interest in Obon and Bon Odori, stated Elaine Fukumoto, the Buddhist Churches of America’s Southern District Bon Odori chairperson for the past six years, in an e-mail interview. “His thoughts and ideas about the topic have influenced many as to what Obon and Bon Odori should be. Bon Odori in the U.S. mainland has become a more meaningful event, more so than in Japan.”

Previously, the Obon dances had been mainly folk dances from Japan, but recently there have been dances created in English, Kodani said. “The English-language Bon Odori dances are a lot closer to the religious meaning than the folk music from Japan.”

From Japan, folk dances included “Tanko Bushi,” “Hokkai Abarambo” (“Hokkaido Ruffian”) and others, he pointed out. “Some of them are old folk tunes and some are new popular music that’s put to folk dancing.”

Kodani credited community artist Nobuko Miyamoto with having a large impact on the local Bon Odori community. “She wrote about six or seven English-language contemporary songs to replace some of the traditional folk dances that had been at all the Southern California temples for decades.”

Miyamoto, a former Broadway dancer, created the songs, the music and the dance, Kodani said. “‘Bambutsu’ is one of them, ‘Mottainai’ is another.

‘Yuiyo’ is another. English dances also include ‘The Gardener’s Dance’ in tribute to Nikkei gardeners.”

Through the encouragement of Kodani, “Nobuko Miyamoto since the 1980s has created Japanese American songs and Bon dances,” Fukumoto acknowledged. “Her most recent song/dance, ‘Bambutsu no Tsunagari,’ was a collaboration between the Japanese American community and the Chicano community. The song is not a fusion of both cultures, but more of a conversation of each.”

Kodani played an important role in leading the temples to go from traditional Japanese folk dances to the newer contemporary Bon Odori dances, Miyamoto commented. “He wants us to understand the essence of Buddhism, and keep it a living tradition. I’m a Sansei, and like a lot of other Sansei I’m ignorant about a lot of Japanese culture. But Obon is something that has a way of uniting our community and remembering not only our ancestors but remembering where we came from. A lot of the older Obon songs from Japan are from traditions of villages, of fishermen, coal mining. In this case we try to be authentic to who we are, and we can still relate to the philosophy of Buddhism.”

More Men Dancers Now
In the old days, most of the dancers were women, with hardly any men participating, because “they just wanted pretty girls to attract people to come to the festival,” Kodani recalled. “The dancing was really female-oriented, so no guy wanted to dance. In the ‘70s we changed that by making it into a folk dance so that people didn’t even have to know the dance to join in and follow it. From that point on a lot of guys started dancing.”

The major change in Southern California started with the dances choreographed by Miyoko Komori during the 1960s into the 1970s, explained Fukumoto. “Her dances were not so feminine-like, some actually pretty masculine, which encouraged many males to begin dancing.”

There are a lot of men dancers nowadays, she said. “We try to gear some of the dances toward the males. We get pretty good response. Nowadays, it’s the ‘in thing’ to do in Southern California. I don’t know about elsewhere. It’s cheap entertainment. We get a lot of young people that don’t come to the practices, but they come out to dance on Bon Odori day. You don’t have to know the dances. You’re out there just to dance, you’re not out there (to) show off.”

Standardized Bon Dances
According to Fukumoto, the BCA has 16 Jodo Shinshu member temples in Southern California, Las Vegas and Arizona taking turns presenting their Obon festivals throughout the summer months, from June through early August. She added that the Southern District temples all share eight common core dances, selected each year. Each temple then has an option to add a couple of “bonus dances.”

“That’s not the case in any other district,” Kodani said. “All the other temples and districts are on their own. Here in Southern California, people like to do Bon Odori and have the chance to do it over a span of three months at various temples, all with the same core of dances. That way, dancers can just go from one temple’s Obon festival to another temple’s Obon festival over a period of three months in the summer.”

According to Fukumoto, this year’s core dances are: “Bon Odori Uta,” “Bambutsu no Tsunagari” (“All Things Connected”) by Nobuko Miyamoto of Great Leap, “Ashibinaa” (“Let’s Play,” an Okinawan song), “Tohoku Ondo,” “Shin Goshu Ondo” (traditional song from Shiga Prefecture), “Hanagasa Ondo” (traditional song choreographed by Miyoko Komori), “Sekai Heiwa Ondo” (“World Peace”), and a new original dance this year from San Jose Taiko and PJ Hirabayashi called “Ei Ja Nai Ka” (“Isn’t It Good”).

“I don’t know why the temples in other districts don’t have standard core dances,” stated Kodani. “Each temple outside of the Southern District does its own dances. We’ve always had coordination between the Southern District temples, probably because we had the most temples among the districts. We’ve had this coordination since after the war. It must have been from the ‘50s because they already had it when I came here in 1968.”

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