Obon season is here. Throughout the summer, across the island, people of all ages and walks of life will take part in the colorful, musical and culturally significant tradition of Bon Odori or “Bon Dance,” which is directly related to Japanese and Buddhist cultures.
Bon Odori originated in Japan around 500 years ago during the Muromachi period (1336-1573,) though according to a June 2006 newsletter by the Honpa Hongwanjii Mission of Hawaii, Obon services were being practiced as early as 600-620 A.D.
Obon refers to the actual religious service that is held specifically to honor one’s ancestors. An Obon service generally takes place directly before the Obon festivities like Bon Dance begin.
Many sources say that the origins of the dance are due to the story of Mokuren, a disciple of Buddha. For those of you that have not heard the story, it goes something like this:
Mokuren was something of a ghost hunter. But unlike the modern day cable television ghost hunters armed with EVP monitors, digital voice recorders and dowsing rods, he attempted to contact the dead through visions. Mokuren’s main objective was to find his deceased mother in the afterlife.
He searched for her, but could not find her. When he finally did find her it was in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and to put it mildly, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Her once gorgeous and silky black hair was matted and dull; it looked like an old Halloween wig, tossed in the back of the truck and rained on months after a drunken Halloween on Front Street. Her almond shaped eyes still burned bright, but now with the desperation of extreme hunger and pain instead of laughter. There were ghoulish pits under her eyes caused by emaciation. Her once creamy skin was covered in sores and burns. Her arms, the same arms that she had rocked him in as a child, were stick thin and her stomach was so bloated and distended that it looked like a simple touch would cause it to burst.
In short, his mother, whom he had loved and was loved by in life, looked like she’d go all zombie and eat brains if given the opportunity.
She called out to him with the voice of someone suffering indescribable pain, “Feed me!”
He offered her two rice balls. She held one in her hand and devoured the other. But instead of relieving her pain, the food caused her to throw her head back and scream out. Her body became engulfed in flames. Mokuren could smell her flesh burning and hear her skin crackling. Totally freaking out, he tried to douse her with water, but in doing so only caused the fire to burn hotter and stronger.
With her undying screams haunting him, he ran to the Buddha and asked what to do. Buddha explained (one would hope quickly) that Mokuren’s mother had been materialistic in life, that she had put herself over others and that the horrifying state was simply her debt.
While he didn’t come out and say it, I’m pretty sure the message was, “Yep, karma’s a bitch.”
Mokuren pleaded with Buddha and asked him if there was something, anything that he could do to help his mother. Buddha told him to go to the priests and make generous offerings of food. Mokuren did and the act released his mother from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and suffering. It’s said that Mokuren was so overcome with happiness that his mother was released from her suffering, that he did what any good son would do. He danced for joy.
It’s believed by many that during the time of Obon, spirits are free to come back to the physical world to check in with their families and commune with them. At the end of Obon, the spirits are required to go back to the ethereal plane.
The festival always takes place in the summer months. In Japan, depending on the region, it takes place from either July 13-15 or Augusts 13-15. Here on Maui, we’ll be celebrating Obon from June through August.
The celebration lasts only three days in Japan, but here in Hawaii we spread it out over the whole summer so we can enjoy numerous festivals on different islands.
Naturally, Obon in Hawaii began when Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii to work on the plantations. It’s interesting to note that according to a 2006 Honoloulu Advertiser article “Drumbeat rises on bon dance” by Mary Kaye Ritz, Obon’s popularity in the islands took a nosedive with World War II when all things Japanese were put under a microscope. Throughout the years it has regained its populairlty.
Today in Hawaii, people from all faiths and ethnic backgrounds participate in Obon and Bon Odoriin celebration of our unique and rich cultural heritage. On the other hand, according to Ritz’s story, the Obon celebrations in Hawaii may actually be more traditional than many that take place in Japan today. “Immigrants want to keep it the same,” Christine Yano, professor of anthropology is quoted to say. “They have a real reason — it’s tied to their cultural identity.”
As a child, I was terrified of Bon Dance. When I was six years old, my great-grandmother passed away on Oahu in July. A devout Buddhist, she was originally from Japan. Her death, and the Buddhist rituals surrounding it, unnerved me. I was frightened by the guttural voice of the monks and the hollow vibration of the gongs used in her services.
When we came back to Maui after her funeral, it was Obon season. We lived in Paia at the time and from our house, I could hear the gong and music coming from the Mantokuji Buddhist temple down the street.
When I asked my mom what the sound of the gong was for, she told me that the priests were calling all the ghosts in to dance with their families and that when the gong sounded late at night, they were sending the spirits back home. She told me it was called “Bon Dance” and that we’d be going to it in the near future.
In my six-year old mind-especially after just witnessing my great-grandmother pass away–the whole idea of dancing ghosts who respond to gongs was totally not cool. Top it all off with a title pronounced “bone dance” and I was 100 percent adamant that if my family wanted to actually take me to the event, they were as crazy as I suspected and would have to do it with me kicking and screaming.
Luckily for my parents, as a little girl, I was easily coerced into attending Bon Dance by the promise of getting to wear a gorgeous kimono. My great-aunt from Japan was visiting us at the time and helped me get dressed.
I will always remember my first Bon Dance at the Mantokuji Buddhist temple in Paia because it was the first time that I participated in something that I feared. It was also the first time that I understood that sometimes fear is irrational.
It was a gorgeous summer night. There was a huge ring of dancers that surrounded a yagura tower, which is a tall wooden scaffold that usually contains a taiko drummer leading the dance with a rhythmic beat and speakers piping out Japanese music that I had only heard while eating dinner with my family at Fujiya’s (an old Japanese restaurant that used to be a staple of Wailuku.)
I was quickly captivated by the music. It’s not that it was soothing, but instead repetitive and mesmerizing. I remember being surprised that the scene and overall feeling at the Bon Dance wasn’t creepy or spooky but upbeat and happy. There were a lot of smiling faces, the sound of laughter and (as far as I could tell) no ghosts.
My dad talked me into joining the circle of dancers. The dancers moved in a rhythmic and repetitive motion. Many of their movements signified manual labor like digging. It’s said that the celebratory dance is also used to soothe the spirits of our departed ancestors visiting the physical realm during Obon.
Although I didn’t know how to do the dance, an elderly Japanese woman took me under her wing and guided me through several rounds. I was elated. Turns out, Bon Dance is a lot of fun. In fact, I spent most of the night dancing in the ring–my kimono flowing–wondering if it was true that my great-grandmother was next to me watching and laughing.
T oday, I take my own kids to Bon Dance. Usually we go to the one at theMakawao Hongwanji Mission. The kids love the food booths, games, gorgeous colored lanterns and games. They also love the dancing although neither of them has participated yet.
I’ve talked to my daughter about the significance of the event, especially because it is a festival that is tied closely to our ethnic culture. She’s seven and thankfully hasn’t had to deal with a death in the family yet, but it’s inevitable that one day she will feel the pain of losing a loved one. It’s my hope that when that day comes, she will recognize Obon as a time to reflect on our ancestors and the sacrifices that they made while forging a new life for us here in Hawaii. And yes, I clarified that Bon Odori, or Bon Dance has nothing to do with bones. Just ghosts. MTW
Upcoming Obon festivalcelebrations in July:
July 7, Paia Mantoku Mission, 6 p.m. service, dancing 8 p.m., 579-8051
July 18, 19, Kahului Hongwanji, 7 p.m. servicedancing, 8 p.m., 871-4732
July 25, 26 , Makawao Hongwanji, 6:30 p.m. service, 7:30 p.m. bon dance, 572-7229