Bonbu Stories: A Yonsei look at Obon through ‘Lantern Song’

BONBU STORIES ­— (From L to R): Sydney Shiroyama, Vicky Zhang, Luke Uyeda, Miko Shudo, Miharu Okamura, Kendall Tani at West LA Obon, 2023. courtesy of Bonbu Stories

As the 2024 Obon season kicks off and various churches hold their Bon Odori, many of the annual dances will be playing a new tune. Celebrating the Buddhist Churches of America’s 125th anniversary, a team of newer artists created “Lantern Song,” a new Bon Odori song and dance for 2024.

Sydney Shiroyama, a taiko player and occupational therapist based in Sunnyvale, Calif. organized the artist collective known as Bonbu Stories in 2019. While the members, mostly Yonsei, are spread out throughout the state, Shiroyama said they were all people she met and knew from her time at the Young Buddhists Association, playing taiko and attending college.

“I was asked by a friend to put together a taiko composition that’s connected to mental health. This was for a organization’s fundraiser gala, and so my friend who was involved with that organization reached out to me to see if I could put something together. And I personally thought it was a good idea, but didn’t have the skills alone to do it,” Shiroyama told the Nichi Bei News.

Shiroyama first met with her friends online before they gathered at Chris and Dan Kubo’s farm in Cortez, Calif. where they, over a weekend, put together “Ways of Being” using Kendall Tani’s spoken word piece.

They called themselves Bonbu Stories, referring to the imperfection of human beings as taught in Buddhism. Since then the group has been asked to perform at the Manzanar Pilgrimage both online and in-person, and commissioned by the Buddhist Churches of America’s Music Committee. According to Miko Shudo, a Bonbu Stories member and a musical educator based in Pasadena, Calif., the BCA approached their group in 2022 to compose and choreograph a new song for Obon along with an accompanying dance choreography.

“It is quite a big ask, and while we were very honored, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, can we do this?’” Shudo said. “We were just questioning if we could do it, but … we grew up going to Obon every summer, working our own temple’s Obon. And we were just so excited about doing it. And it was just like, ‘Yes, we have to do this. We’ll find a way to do it.’”

Chris Kubo, who is a part of the Music Committee, considered herself a “cheerleader” for the group, but Shiroyama said she had advocated and pushed the committee to commission Bonbu Stories for the song. She said, in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei News, the group represented the “voice of the younger generation” and “personified a Buddhist sangha, community; understanding compassion, community, inclusivity, interdependence, and knowing that life is impermanent, things change.”

“Their collective creativity is amazing and they know how to express multigenerational connections with their hearts and spirits,” Kubo said.

The resulting “Lantern Song” is different from the traditional enka style songs Shudo and Shiroyama had grown up listening to at their local summer dances. The soft rock or pop song incorporates Japanese instruments such as the koto and taiko. The group, however, was heartened by the preceding generation of Sansei artists they consulted for the work.

The group consulted with San Jose Taiko icons PJ and Roy Hirabayashi, as well as Rev. Mas Kodani, who founded Kinnara Taiko and who lent the inspiration to the story behind “Lantern Stories,” and Sansei folk singer Nobuko Miyamoto, who imparted key advice to Bonbu Stories on composing a song for Obon.

“I think Nobuko, talking about her experiences, also questioning whether she could do what she was asked by Reverend Mas, that was really helpful,” Shiroyama said. “She at one point said, … ‘We’re all stumbling through it, but the stumbling is what’s really fun and exciting.’ And so, they’re just like, ‘go for it!’”

PJ Hirabayashi, who first met Shiroyama when she was attending San Jose State University, had initially led workshops at the Kubos’ farm when Bonbu Stories first formed. She and her husband Roy Hirabayashi, returned to advise the group for “Lantern Stories.” Hirabayashi, who composed “Ei Ja Nai Ka” in the 1990s, recognized Bonbu Stories’ effort to compose a song that was truly relevant to the Japanese American experience.

“They really wanted to understand the inner workings of how Nobuko and Mas and the ‘Ei Ja Nai Ka’ piece actually was representing … a different collection of Obon pieces that are more contemporary, relevant to our Japanese American experience, and not based on just ‘Tanko bushi’ and the old folk songs,” Hirabayashi told the Nichi Bei News.

“And certainly it’s not like … a lot of the old folk songs, or even our contemporary expressions. It’s like, wow, this is really different,” she continued. “But then it had me actually opening my eyes and my mind: this is their expression. This is how they’re finding what is important. This song is imagining what they’re looking at through their eyes as they look up at the lanterns. What are they remembering, about family, those who passed on. It’s really wonderful to see a new generation, or younger generation really being thoughtful about what they want to create. It’s not just because they want to be creative. There was a lot of thought put into what to consider, and holding their ground going, ‘even though people are saying that’s not a regular Obon song,’ they were pretty much standing true to what they created. That’s what I appreciate.”

“We also talked about how our song would add to the sounds of Obon, and not necessarily replace,” Shiroyama said. “We didn’t really want to be like, ‘This is everyone’s new favorite song.’ It’s OK to enjoy the more traditional songs, and also ‘Ei Ja Nai Ka.’ So this can be in addition, rather than taking anything away from what’s in the past.”

Shudo said she did not know what to expect from the BCA community as the group presented the song at various Buddhist churches to introduce it and the dance, but she said the reception has been positive, and Hirabayashi agreed after attending a demonstration at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, just look up a video, or just listen to music and here’s information, how to dance it. But it’s like almost oral tradition, to be in person. There’s that sensitivity of wanting to be in contact with the public, with individuals, so that there’s an interpersonal connection, so they can also tell their story behind the creation of the piece. So there’s context, rather than product, which I really endorse greatly and praise that they want to do that in person,” Hirabayashi said.

“We’ve had people come up to us after workshops in tears saying, ‘Oh, it really touched me.’” Shudo said. “Some people are just like, ‘I don’t know why, but I was crying through the whole music video,’ things like that. So I think those, even just those few comments, it makes everything so worth it.”

Shiroyama said Bonbu Stories will continue to work in the Japanese American community when called upon, noting they hope to continue working with the Manzanar Pilgrimage, but the group is not any of the member’s full-time “gig” per se. Shiroyama currently attends the Institute of Buddhist Studies, looking to pursue her master’s and Tokudo certification and eventually become a Buddhist minister.

“We kind of take projects on as we go, and then for those who have the capacity to do so or interest, we kind of run with the projects,” she said. “We’ll kind of see what’s interesting. I know that we’ve talked about things that we’d like to work on together. We definitely like working together. … So yeah, we’re gonna kind of see where we go.”

To listen and watch “Lantern Song,” visit https://youtu.be/yZMJ39gNHU0. To watch a tutorial on how to dance the Bon Odori dance for the song, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKKB-AGGeFA.

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