Summer bon dance, a part of contemporary island culture

It’s a warm summer Friday or Saturday evening on Kauai, perfect for a bon dance in the Japanese tradition as it has evolved in Hawaii. At one or the other of the Buddhist temples, people of all ages and nationalities gather. The measured beat of the ondo music begins backed by the boom of the taiko drum, and the circles of dancers honoring their ancestors progress counter-clockwise around the tower set up specially for the occasion in the middle of a green lawn.

Smells of local snacks cooking in the food booths assail the nostrils. Cheers and laughter come from the game booths, and a festive air envelops the crowd of friends and visiting onlookers. As dusk falls, strings of colored lanterns rigged for the occasion glow brightly.

Men, women and children dance, swaying and clapping in unison. Many wear lightweight summer kimonos or yukata sashed with colorful obi, happi coats, tabis (socks with a toe) and rubber zori slippers or wooden geta. The women demurely tuck a cotton kerchief marked with the name of their temple or dance club around the neckline of their yukata. The men tie it dashingly around their heads.

Visitors drawn by the sights and sounds and just happening to drop in might feel there’d been a mistake. Had their flight taken them to Japan rather than Hawaii? This would be understandable, since the bon dance or Bon-odori, in Hawaii is part of a rich fabric of ethnic cultural heritage.

Originally the O-Bon festival and dances were celebrated for three days in mid-July. O-Bon, one of the two most important Japanese Buddhist celebrations along with New Year, is usually translated into English as the Festival of Souls, the Feast of the Dead, or the Festival of Lanterns.

The joyous occasion originated in India, actually, as told in Sanskrit religious texts. Mokuren, a disciple of Buddha, realized his mother was condemned to suffering in her afterlife because she had performed ill deeds during her lifetime, Mokuren’s attempts to aid his mother proved futile until, following his teacher’s advice, he fed the priestly spirits on the 15th day of the seventh month. Mokuren rejoiced after seeing a vision of his mother carrying a tray of food and dancing, freed from her suffering. His own dance of joy caught fire, with others joining in, and a tradition evolved that was later carried from India to Burma, China and Japan as Buddhism spread.

The bon dance tradition was carried to Hawaii by immigrants who came in the late 1800s to work sugar cane. Because of the cane workers’ schedules, the O-Bon season spread out over weekends of the summer months. The dancing is preceded by the cleaning and beautification of graves of family members and friends, the placing of offerings of food and flowers on the graves, and the segaki religious ceremony honoring ancestors. Sometimes welcome and farewell fires are lit, and small boats alight with candles are set adrift to guide souls back to earth for a brief sojourn before returning to the spirit world.

Today the bon dance in Hawaii is as much a social as a religious event. Many people — “kids from 1 to 99”— of varied ancestries and religions participate, and the bon dance has become a part of contemporary culture.

Anyone who is interested may join in the preparatory dance classes announced in our local media to learn dances such as the women cane workers’ hole hole bushi, or painful songs, original verses expressing the challenges (and joys) women experienced in plantation life and work. Many of these have been recorded and saved.

On this past Friday evening, a free, round-trip bus ride was offered that originated at the Kapaa Hongwanji Mission, stopped in Lihue to pick up riders, and hele’d on west to Hanapepe, where the Kauai Soto Zenshuji temple was the scene of O-Bon, as described. Additionally, there were exhibits of plantation day photographs and artifacts, and a display of the original verses sung by the women as well as recordings made by the late Mrs. Shizuko Kato, a past temple member and McBryde Sugar Plantation worker who came as a picture pride from Hiroshima. Also offering a cameo performance were two guest singers of the hole hole bushi who came from Honolulu for the occasion, and special performances by Taiko Kauai and Somei Taiko — talk about drum dance excitement!

Several weekends of bon dance remain: July 24-25 at Koloa Jodo Mission, July 31-Aug. 1 at the West Kauai Hongwanji (Hanapepe), and Aug. 7-8, at Lihue Hongwanji Mission. The dancing usually begins at 7:30 p.m. It’s always good to double- check time and place right before the event, however.

O-Bon for myself (who cannot claim plantation heritage) and, I believe, many others in the crowd attending, is a perfect time to remember ancestors of the more recent and the far past, and to reflect on how their lives, their love and energy, and challenges and perseverance, led to our own lives as we live them today on this “small, round island in the middle of the sea.” I prayed in particular for a green flash within our small community to be a guiding operative based on all the courage and wisdom gained by our collective ancestors.

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Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author and poet, regularly instructs on the topics of history and Hawaiian culture for visitors to Kauai through Hawaii Pacific University’s “Road Scholar” program through Pacific Islands Institute. The writer is completing her second memoir, based on her family history in British India/Burma. She is active as principal/owner of TropicBird Press (books) and TropicBird Weddings & Celebrations-Kauai under DAWN Enterprises.

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