Friday, December 16, 2011

Bon Odori - Dancing Through the Veil

14th August, 2010 - Every year, come the middle of August - at least in Hokkaido - something mysterious happens. It's known as Obon, one of the most important ritual festivals in Japan (outside New Years). It's traditionally associated with the return of the spirits of the departed to the world of the living for 3 days of the year (typically the 13th - 15th of the month, but more on that at the end). It's an important part of Japan, yet, I had not experienced it before... and was kind of curious. The original plan involved going to the city to see the Bon dancing in Odori Kouen, however, it was a big day, so we instead decided to have a look at one of the local dances in the neighbourhood. Disorganised as normal, we missed the start... just...

Now I'll give a quick description of the popularly believed Buddhist origins of Obon (as sourced from the Shingon Buddhist site). I say believed, as obon, like Christmas, is most likely an amalgam of different meanings. The day almost certainly takes its name from the Buddhist Urabon Sutra - which itself is a transliteration of the sanskrit Ullambana and which means to "hang upside down". This sutra tells a story of Mokuren Sonja, one of Sâkyamuni Buddha's disciples whom had supernatural powers (of course) which he used to find his deceased mother... only to discover that her soul had fallen into the world of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering immense pain. He then asked Sâkyamuni for guidance, to which he was told to make offerings to the priests coming back from their summer retreat. Which he did, with the result: - problem solved. [At this point in the story, I do pause and reflect on the commercial acumen of mystics back in those days... nice one Buddha!].

It's actually not that easy to find reliable info on the web [the irony of this statement does not escape me], but according to one of my books ("Japan: How We Breathe & How Our Hearts Beat"), obon's origins were in fact found from a much older seasonal tradition. Indeed New Year and Obon marked the transition between two halves of the calendar, and both involving ancestor worship and the offering of crops for thanks and for prayers. It was supposedly later that this was combined with urabon-e, and combined with the Chinese traditions of filial ties. Yet still, at it's heart there lies the tradition that like the Chinese Ghost Festival, or even Samhain (one origin of Halloween), for a short time the veil that separates the living from the dead is lifted. In this case, thankfully only for the spirits return home, to be honoured by their family. Indeed, obon remains a time when families return home from all over Japan to be together.

The dance, bon odori, originates as a welcome to the ancestors spirits, where the dancers would visit homes of people who had deceased during that year. I've also read that the dance may have originated from the buddhist monk, Kuya Shonin in the Heian period, but really the custom that we now know became popular in the Edo period... in fact was so popular and grew to such extravagance that the dance was officially banned between 1673-81 AD. 

The dance itself involves a large open space, in the middle of which is constructed a tower or yagura, upon which the musicians (and drummers in particular) are positioned. Around the yagura are a number of concentric circles, along which the participants dance. The dance is slow, rythmical and often based on local traditions... for example in Hokkaido, the fishing song Soran Bushi is apparently popular (though I can't recall it at this bon odori).

The following video is a bit of a grab-bag of the dance. Unfortunately the video is pretty crappy - apologies for that - but you get a bit of a sense of the music and the movements at our local bon odori. Actually, this was about the end of our videocamera, that just died in terms of it's autofocussing. Perhaps the spirits of the dead didn't appreciate my camera skills [insert spooky music here]...WOOOOoooooohhh.

It's a community event as much as a religious one... and indeed it's perhaps moved beyond religion to be just another thread in the fabric of Japanese life.  It's also a family occasion with lots of small children with the their parents. And indeed the first part of the evening is dedicated to them with fun and games (and even giveaways to the best child dancers). 

It's nice to see the yukata, or summer kimono, which is often worn out to special events such as this (and especially to fireworks for some reason).

Apart from the occasional yukata - worn predominantly by the very young and the very old - this was a fairly casual neighbourhood events. It's not quite to the standard that you will see in some areas, but I sort of think that's not important. Instead it's a occasion to bring community together - and I have to say that the dance itself is not unlike the mass-hypnotic dances that you might read about in tribal areas.. it is quite repetitive (in a good way) and quite rhythmical. The beat of the drum stirs something in your heart - even if your not Japanese.

I'm not sure if this is something new - but there was a fairly large emphasis also places on best costume-style awards. Not unlike a Halloween influence. And I have to admit that most of the theme costumes escaped me... for example the person that dressed up as what I think was a Stonehenge megalith. I'm not sure why, but they deserved a prize just for wearing that on such a hot night. And given that it's in the middle of a hot Japanese summer, there's always lots of beer being consumed. So it's quite a lively social event, at least in the neighbourhood. 

And of course - there were other strange costumes being worn. For example some gaijin fool and his child decided to dress up in their jinbei - a traditional summer clothing in Japan, but not the sort of thing you'd see someone wear down the street... let alone in front of hundreds of people. I'm sure most of the people were wondering what the... especially when the two of them started joining in the dance. Ah... what fools... But of course, that's me. And always the shy type, it took a lot of encouragement (yet surprisingly no amber courage) to get me up. Even though we stood out like sore thumbs (even amongst the megaliths) I didn't once feel out-of-place, and indeed I think the festive mood was just positive all around.

Now I have to admit something - until recently (about 5 mins ago) I had assumed that obon was celebrated at the same time everywhere in Japan, but when they switched from a lunar to a solar calendar (way back when...), the nation split on when to recongnize obon - with some areas having a July Bon (especially in Kanto region), others celebrating it in mid August, and even others maintaining the old lunar calendar timings. Supposedly, one of the reasons why obon was held in August was due to heavy farming workload in mid-July that didn't leave any time for preparation. It just goes to show that after many years of going to Japan, that you still can be surprised by things... and no matter how much you think you know, the country defies being defined by any one person.
As the evening wore on, there were less and less people, but as we left, I had the feeling that there was going to be dancing well into the night...

So - obon, and bon odori may not be the flashiest of events once you get into the neighbourhoods... but I suspect that this is where the true heart of bon odori lies. I'm not sure that the veil between worlds was lifted, or that our music and dance welcomed any spirits. It certainly awoke the spirits of those that danced though. And even to this day (over a year later) my son still sings the music (cha-cha cha chan-ko-chan...). And he's not the only one. 


  1. Ah, yes. We celebrate Obon down Okinawa way by the old Chinese Lunar calendar. And the dance here isn't called Bon Odori. It's Eisa, an adaptation from Obon that is performed year round at any festival, school assembly, or any other time folks just feel like celebrating !

  2. Must be warming up in Adelaide if you are thinking about Obon, which happens in the middle of the Japanese summer. I love it! Obon has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and does vary from different regions of Japan. "Shichigatsu Bon" (Bon in July) is celebrated around 15 July in areas such as Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku region. "Hachigatsu Bon" (Bon in August) is celebrated around the 15th of August and is the most commonly celebrated time. In Gifu, we really enjoy the Gujo Odori Folk Dance Matsuri held from early July to early September. The townsfolk really let their hair down for some frenzied dancing. During the four main days of the festival from 13 to 16 August the dancing goes on through the night.

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  3. Thanks RyukuMike... I guess that goes for so much in Okinawa, where everything is slightly blurred between Japanese and Chinese influence more so than anywhere (I guess, not having been to Okinawa). I like the idea that if it's good enough for 3 days, it's an even better idea for all year around. Very practical. I can relate.

  4. J_A - unfortunately any connection to our summer is purely coincidental (and by the way, it's a crap cold and wet summer so far here). I'm a simple lad that has one simple rule on my Japanese Ties blog. Purely chronological.

    Thanks for your other notes... I would be especially interested in seeing some of that frenzied dancing. Frenzy is a state of mind that resonates deeply with me. I would love to see some pix/video of that.

  5. i heard a lot about japan cultures and tradition and must say that they have very interesting culture. thanks for sharing this information

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