LOS ANGELES — With the onset of summer, Japanese Americans are preparing to enjoy themselves at a large number of festivals — both the Buddhist Obon observances and secular summer celebrations that include dancing and carnivals throughout Southern California.

Obon is a traditional Buddhist event to honor and express gratitude to one’s ancestors for the gift of life. For Buddhists today, in the United States, a basic part of Obon is the offering of food, and the celebratory Bon Odori (dance). Families gather at the temples to observe Obon on weekends from June to August. Most Japanese American Buddhist temples feature Bon Odori (dancing), along with carnivals, entertainment and cultural demonstrations.

Kicking off the 2024 Obon season, the 103-year-old San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple will hold its Obon festival on June 29-30, at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, 12953 Branford St. in Pacoima, Calif.

A large number of Nikkei and friends are expected to attend the San Fernando Valley Bon Odori. Among the Bon dance enthusiasts will be film star Tamlyn Tomita, a Valley resident who has been dancing at the event for many years. She said via e-mail that her involvement with the San Fernando Valley Temple Obon has always been “as a local San Fernando Valley girl dancing with her Japanese American friends since the early 1970s.”

Tomita was reared as a Christian, but because family friends attended the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, “we all gathered, shared, played and communed at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center which was … only three blocks away.” Growing up with Japanese American kids and playing at the Community Center, Tomita recalled how she and her friends learned of this “cool” festival called Obon. “Folks would dress up, if they had them, in kimono and yukata, but us kids, would dress up in summer clothes and dance in the Obon circles. In the early ‘70s through the ‘90s, only girls and women would dance; very few men would dare to dance … Now, I am glad to say that many boys and men dance in the Obon circles.”

“Obon was crucial for all of us JA kids to recognize the importance of our Japanese American culture; that we could be proud Americans, while celebrating Japanese culture,” Tomita continued. “We non-Buddhists knew well enough to behave and to respect the meaning of Obon, and most of the Buddhist brothers and sisters were so willing to share about this wonderful festival … Many of the dance movements were … easy to learn, and the dancers who knew the dances were so graceful. As a young girl, I wanted to emulate the dancers who knew all the odori … The gentle movements of their hands, the position of their fingers, the slight shuffle of their dancing feet, the delicate tilt of their heads … And those who were dressed in kimono! It was an affirmation of how beautiful women who looked like me could be — my mother is extremely beautiful and growing up in her shadow was inspirational, but having a community of other Japanese American women (and the brave men who danced then) was impactful and powerful.”

Tomita recalled that, as a kid, her summers were “always filled with Obon festivals … Celebrating Obon was a way to reconnect, to reinvest, to reignite my own pride, our community’s pride, in Japanese American culture. We were not traditionally Japanese, many of us do not speak the language well, but we were all raised with the respect, dignity, and integrity of our otosan (father) and okasan (mother), our jiichan (grandfather) and obaasan (grandmother), and what they passed onto us … So that we could be proud Japanese Americans. And though a Christian, I can honor this Buddhist tradition of being grateful, to be truly honoring … the legacy of the wonderful values literally being passed in the circles, dancing with the spirit of life.”

The actress noted that there always seems to be “an awesome mix” of traditional songs and the newer, more modern songs at the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple Obon. “They always seem to bring in one current contemporary song that’s danced with the traditional odori steps.”

Tomita said her favorite dance at Obon is “Bon Odori Uta,” “because it opens and ends Obon, like a circle of life.” Her favorite dish the temple serves at Obon, “is what you see all the obasan (ladies) line up for; the oishii (tasty) and the freshly made andagi (Okinawan donuts).”

Comparing acting in movies and TV to dancing at Obon, Tomita stated, “Acting is more meaningful, because I am responsible for the telling of a story that I hope moves, entertains, or touches people, and often, that is not fun, because it is work … it is a responsibility I do not take lightly. I have been given an extraordinary privilege.”

However, “absolutely more fun is dancing at Obon,” she declared, “because it means that I am just a small speck in a very large circle of life and that I am lucky to be part of a tradition that recognizes all who we come from and sees all those who will follow us. And to hear the drumbeats of the music, beating like our hearts, that connect all together immediately … I am lucky to be mostly joyful in my work, but I’m always joyful dancing at Obon.”

Tomita’s current film project, “Ultraman: Rising,” will be released June 14 on Netflix. She plays Emiko Sato, who is Kenji Sato/Ultraman’s mother and Mina, Kenji Sato’s Artificial Intelligence Assistant. Tomita also appears in

“Dead Boy Detectives,” which was released April 25 on Netflix. Based on Neil Gaiman’s books, the film features Tomita as The Principal. “In this supernatural world, there is always more than meets the eye,” she said.

Forget Yourself, Just Dance
Another Bon Odori enthusiast, Orange County Buddhist Church minister’s assistant Janis Hirohama, commented that there are Obon festivals in Southern California almost every weekend from June through early August, including OCBC’s on July 20-21. “I love to dance, so I try to attend as many as I can, which means I’m usually dancing every weekend during Obon and festival season … I have made trips to Obon festivals in San Jose, Fresno, Arizona, and Las Vegas.”

Hirohama began dancing Bon Odori in 2012, she explained via e-mail. “Before then I was too self-conscious … But eventually, I realized that it was my ego that was stopping me — my desire to not make mistakes and to look like a good dancer. The whole point of Bon Odori is to forget yourself and just dance.

The Obon festival is a way “for us to joyfully remember our departed loved ones and to express gratitude for their ongoing influence in our lives. So, it is not a sad or mournful remembrance,” she said. “That is why another term for Obon is Kangi-E — the ‘Gathering of Joy.’ I consider it a life-affirming spiritual practice.”

Hirohama said she receives “much joy” from seeing her friends and family members at Obon time. “It affirms not only our ongoing gratitude to, and relationships with, our departed loved ones, but with each other … It’s a kind of big, happy reunion, and I always look forward to seeing … my friends from all over Southern California.”

As someone who attends many festivals, Hirohama appreciates how special each temple’s Obon is. “Senshin Temple has a wonderful tradition of inviting the dancers to pay their respects in the temple after the dancing, followed by lighting the 1,000 Sento Shogon memorial oil lamps in the courtyard. It really emphasizes the spiritual meaning of the Bon Odori. Some temples have dancing in the streets, like Gardena and West L.A. … Long Beach Buddhist Church has the most dances, including pop ondo …. My temple, OCBC, has a large Obon with many children and youth dancing, so there’s a great energy to our Bon Odori.”

Hirohama’s favorite Bon Odori are classic ones, like “Tanko Bushi” and “Bon Odori Uta,” but she also enjoys newer dances and songs that “speak to our Japanese American experience, such as “Ei Ja Nai Ka” or this year’s new dance, “Lantern Song.” The dances with Buddhist meanings to their lyrics are also special to me, like “Shiawase Samba” and “Gassho Ondo,” she stated. “However, my favorite dance is “Hokkai No Abarembo,” which describes the life of a fisherman. Since my Issei grandfather was a tuna fisherman in Hawai‘i, and my father and uncles also worked on fishing boats, I think of them every time I do this dance, it has a lot of meaning for me.”

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