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Evolving Obon

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FL MORRIS / JULY 2008
Lanterns drift out to sea.

DON’T be surprised if you go to an obon festival this summer and find skilled performers dancing country music "line dance" steps and motions. And don’t expect to see everyone in kimonos or yukatas. Nor will the food all be traditional.

Obon is changing.

Originally, it was celebrated in Japan for only four days in the middle of the seventh lunar month. People believe that their ancestors’ spirits come back to be reunited with their family during obon. It became an important family-gathering time, a Buddhist event steeped in religious beliefs.

That, too, has changed.

Most of the folk songs that have become favorites for this annual event have nothing to do with religion. For example, the popular "Soran Bushi" is about herring fishing and was originally sung a cappella. "Donpan Bushi" boasts about the great rice, sake, iris blooms and liquor shops of Akita-ken. "Aizu Bondaisan" clears up the mystery of what caused the downfall of Ohara Shosuke … it was his "sleeping, drinking and bathing in the morning" (instead of at night). The popular "Kuroda Bushi" talks about drinking sake. It is no surprise that many of the "obon" songs are sung and danced in bars and at parties throughout the year.

SOME temples still stress that kimonos and yukatas are appropriate attire to participate in bon odori, but most have relaxed the dress code, and almost all will accept dancers in happi coats.

It is one of the most inclusive events in the islands, right down to the food. You might find Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese and Portuguese food at your neighborhood festival.

The dancing also has undergone changes.

A recent panel discussion and obon demonstration at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii featured two prominent local sensei who are choreographing new steps and motions.

Betty Dela Cuesta and Alice Shiroma, who teach bon dancing year-round, said they added new steps — including country music "line dance" steps — to the traditional dance motions of Japan. Both said they included the moves to attract more people to participate in the obon festivals.

Cuesta and Shiroma joined with some of their students in demonstrating how foreign and more modern ingredients can be worked into the centuries-old traditions.

Obon "season" in the islands begins around the first weekend in June and continues into September. On Oahu, it begins on Memorial Day with a huge lantern-floating event similar to a ceremony that for centuries has marked the end, not the beginning of the season.

In Honolulu, it is a "peace" ceremony, rather than about one’s ancestors. Traditionally, the lanterns are floated to light the way and guide the spirits of ancestors back into their world.

Tens of thousands of residents and visitors attend, and no one seems to mind that this most important part of the obon festival has been changed to the extreme, moved from the end to the beginning.

C. Keith Haugen, a teacher, lived in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s.

 

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