San Jose Obon delivers comforting familiarity to community

BON ODORI ­— San Jose Taiko perfomed at the annual San Jose Obon festival, which was held in the heart of the city’s Japantown July 9-10. San Jose Obon’s Bon Odori on Saturday, July 9 reached a new record, with 1,517 dancers. photo by Scott Nakajima / Nakajima Photography

BON ODORI ­— San Jose Taiko perfomed at the annual San Jose Obon festival, which was held in the heart of the city’s Japantown July 9-10. San Jose Obon’s Bon Odori on Saturday, July 9 reached a new record, with 1,517 dancers.
photo by
Scott Nakajima /
Nakajima Photography

This year’s Obon festival in San Jose’s Japantown, which took place July 9 and July 10, was the same as it is every year: parking was nearly impossible to find, a line extended all the way from Jackson Street around the corner to North Fifth Street for the shave ice sold at Shuei-do Manju Shop, the earthy aroma of chicken teriyaki drifted in the air and I expected to play games at the game booths as I have at every Obon.

However, the most impactful aspect of my festival experience this year was the realization that this familiarity is a treasure for the Obon festival. This familiarity maintains memories for those who attended it as children. It also serves as a reminder that it is a time to remember the sacrifices our ancestors made and to reconnect with our heritage and community.

The first step to this recognition was when my father, Mark Yamanaka, unlike in previous years, shared his personal experiences of Obon.

Growing up in the early-to-late 1970s, my dad volunteered as a busboy inside the gymnasium and with other small jobs like shucking corn and picking up trash. Above all, however, his most prized job was helping his father, Norio Yamanaka, who was a member of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin from the early 1960s to 1980, grill chicken teriyaki.

“I remember he’d get up at 2 a.m. and get there at 3 a.m. just to help out with barbecuing at the grills … When I helped at the teriyaki stand, the adults were very nice and offered me lots of breaks but I always wanted to stay to help with my dad,” he said.

Upon hearing this, I looked over at the teriyaki grills and counted 30 to 40 hard working volunteers, joyfully conversing through teamwork and Kirin beer. I envisioned my dad and grandfather there and guessed that not much had changed in terms of the bonding experience since the 1970s.

Curious about what others thought of the festival, I talked to Chikage Doi, who worked the cashier box at the tempura stand.

“We just do it as a family every year,” she commented, right before pointing out that her daughter was in the back at the oil station. “My daughter used to do kendo at the church and has been helping out at the festival ever since she was 6. We all help together as a family.”

Later in the festival, San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin’s lead minister Rinban Kenshin Fujimoto gave a brief history of Obon before kicking off the Bon Odori. Upon explaining that it began when a disciple of Buddha named Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren) danced out of joy when he realized the many sacrifices his deceased mother made for him, Fujimoto stated, “This is why we meet here for Obon: to express our joy and join together in our joy … and to pay respects to our ancestors for the sacrifices they made for us … Namu Amida Butsu.”

This year, I danced in the odori lines for the first time instead of being a spectator, as I felt inspired by all the stories I had learned and sights I had seen that day — including the men bonding behind the teriyaki stand, children running their own game stands and being young leaders, boys and girls dressed in happi practicing in small groups for odori and my dad’s recollections of his father through Obon — to join my community and heritage at the Obon festival.

Jasmine Yamanaka is a first-year creative writing major at the University of California, Riverside and serves as the assistant features editor at the UCR Highlander Newspaper. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Comments

  1. Oddly enough the guy in the taiko picture is a Yamanaka as well!

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