Every year, at various locales across Maui, bon dance celebrations are held. People dance, eat and generally enjoy themselves, but the historical and religious beginnings of the event are less well known. And despite its apparent popularity, in some areas the future of bon dance is uncertain.
Japanese Buddhists locate the origins of o-bon dances and services in the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mokuren (Maudgalyayana). The story begins with the death of Mokuren’s mother. During a meditative state, he saw her beyond the material universe. Because of her life as a human, she had been reborn as a hungry ghost.
Mokuren sought to give her food, but in her realm, human food appeared as fiery poison. The Buddha instructed Mokuren on the proper procedure for making offerings to hungry ghosts. His mother was satiated and danced in joy. Mokuren, seeing this, joined in her dancing and the people of the village joined Mokuren.
This practice was brought by Indian Buddhists to Japan around the sixth century C.E. and syncretized with indigenous Japanese practices honoring the dead.
Not to be confused with the indigenous non-Buddhist Tibetan Bön religious tradition, Buddhist scholars believe the word “bon” came from the Sanskrit “ullambana” meaning “to salvage souls from the agony of being hanged head down” or “avalambana” meaning offering to the community that benefits the departed.”
Buddhist missionaries brought Bon dances to Hawaii just before the turn of the century. Dances were held irregularly in cane fields near labor encampments. During the early territorial period, plantations helped coordinate and manage the dances, which would go late into the night and sometimes involve a lot of alcohol.
Marissa Muraoka, a sophomore at King Kekaulike High School and a yonsei (fourth-generation) Japanese dancer, dances “as a way to express my interest in Japanese culture, but at the same time have fun. My grandpa is a Buddhist priest so we’ve been doing it for a while—18 generations.”
These dances developed in Hawaii as a complex strategy for plantation laborers to relax with a familiar cultural practice, for the plantations to divert frustration over poor working conditions and for Buddhist missionaries to interact with the Japanese community.
Jane (Kamimoto) Imai, a nisei (second-generation) Japanese dancer who grew up in the West Maui camps, notes that the Kuhua and Kilauea camps were fortunate to have a basketball court nearby with a paved surface to hold dances. “You’d get all dirty everywhere else,” Mrs. Imai recalls, because other dances were held in unpaved open spaces in the camps.
While pre-World War II dances in Hawaii were very similar to pre Meiji era dances in Japan, after the war efforts were made by the Buddhist clergy to eliminate much of the “adult” aspects that caused the dances’ suppression in Japan. As plantation life improved, dances were moved to temples and held on weekends.
Second-generation Japanese in Hawaii were propelled toward greater assimilation by World War II, which helped establish bon dances as religious and multicultural events. In addition to the camp dances, Mrs. Imai remembers the different West Maui camps going to the old Honokowai School to participate in inter-camp bon dance competitions. She remembers her sister’s group winning the first place trophy for the Kuhua camp one year.
Dances involve both live and recorded music. In her childhood, Mrs. Imai remembers using recorded music from a loaned phonograph as well as music by the singer-songwriter and taiko master Tokunaga-san. Tokunaga-san improvised some of the songs, which included events of interest to the Japanese community in the 1940s and ’50s. Albert Watanabe, one of the founders of Maui Taiko, continues the live singing tradition by leading his drumming group in “Fukushima Ondo” at all of Maui’s bon dances.
Mrs. Imai’s childhood dancing was geographically limited by the availability of transportation. “People would pick us up or whoever had access to a truck, we would all ride in the back,” she remembers. When raising her children, her family began to go to more dances around the island. When her husband passed, she joined friends in dancing the entire island circuit in his honor. Since then, she has become a regular and dances every year at most of the church events.
Some dance songs refer to towns or prefectures in Japan—as in the regularly performed “Fukushima Ondo” and “Iwakuni Ondo.” Others refer to world peace and societal values like “Ganbare Ondo” and “Harebare Ondo.” One of the most famous dances in Hawaii, Bushi,” is a love song—but the dance gestures refer to the life of an agricultural laborer.
While many of the dances feature the Okinawan standard, “Asadoya Yunta,” the Okinawan community holds an annual dance featuring only Okinawan-style dancing to live music at the Paia Rinzai Temple in mid-August.
Today, people from many religious and ethnic backgrounds go to bon dances to dance, to eat food sold by the churches for fundraising and to honor their departed families. Melanie Agrabante, a Hawaiian-Chinese-Caucasian dancer, likes the camaraderie the most. “I’ve made more friends through bon dancing than any other activity I’ve taken part in,” she says.
Joseph Daoang, a Filipino dancer, agrees: “I like the community-building aspect. People dancing together, laughing and enjoying a good time. And the food.”
Mrs. Imai says that while churches today offer refreshments to dancers, which sometimes involve lavish spreads, in leaner times “workers from the church would bring out a big tray with musubi and takuan (pickled daikon radish)” during the mid-dance intermission. She wondered if the current economic situation may drive more churches to return to the older practice of “rice ball and takuan.”
This process of change can be seen on Lanai where Filipinos have replaced Japanese as the dominant ethnic group. However, Mrs. Imai, Marissa, Melanie, Joseph and a group of other Maui dancers make the trip every year to dance at the Lanai Hongwanji’s bon dance. “It’s about people from the big city sharing with people in a small town who don’t have many dancers. They just don’t have enough people,” says Marissa.
Many older, long-time Pahala residents reported much pride on the eve of Pahala’s last bon dance in 1999. To them, the end of the tradition of the annual dance represented economic development and uplifting of the economic circumstances of their families, who had previously suffered from the poverty of plantation labor camps. People too young to have grown up in the plantation camps see it another way. Those involved express despair over the thought of churches stopping their bon festivities.
“It’s sad to consider, but I think it’s inevitable,” says Melanie. “Lanai’s congregation is down to only a handful of seniors and as much as the community helps out, when the last congregation member is gone, that will more than likely be the end.”
On the bright side, everyone seems to agree that there has been a renewed interested by high school and college aged dancers in recent years. Joseph started dancing a few years ago because of friends. “It helps me overcome my shyness,” he says. Marissa notes how some of her “guy” classmates are shy about coming to the dances but then follow their girlfriends and enjoy it.
Mrs. Imai is hopeful about this infusion of youth. “[I’m] glad the young ones are coming in.” MTW
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