2011 / Bon Odori: A joyful summer gathering for the Japanese American community

Bon Odori Senshin Buddhist Temple 2011 July 02

Bon Odori at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles on July 2, 2011 (Cultural News Photo)

Cultural News, 2011 July issue

By Rev. Masao Kakuryu Kodani, Senshin Buddhist Temple

(The following article is an excerpt from Rev. Kodani’s lecture on August 18, 2009 at the Japan Study Club of the Nibei Foundation in West Los Angeles)

Today, Bon Odori (Bon dance) along with taiko has become a popular and uniquely Japanese-American tradition.  In the Japanese American community in Los Angeles prior to World War II, any “cultured” person was expected to be able to perform some type of entertainment regardless of his or her ability or talent.

This tradition died after the war. Yet this spirit of performing arts has now been brought back by today’s 4th generation of Japanese American (yonsei). Also, the older sansei (the third generation) today feel a resurgence of this spirit which is further fueled by their connection with their older grandparents.

It is a tradition here to start and end with the traditional “Bon Odori”.  It is a most elegant and simple dance.  Bon Odori is today spread beyond boundaries of the Japanese American community.

The term “Bon Odori” consists of “Bon” and “Odori”(dance). Bon is an abbreviation of the Buddhist term Urabon.  This is the name of a sutra in which the story of one of the Buddha’s disciples sees his mother who is suffering in hell. The Buddha instructs the disciple by saying that with his own enlightenment will come the deliverance of his mother.

As he comes to understand this, he jumps for joy and makes an offering to the Sangha.  Bon Odori traces its roots to this “jumping for joy in the Dharma”.  Popular belief has instead, emphasized the offerings to bring about relief from sufferings.  This latter belief is completely rejected by Jodoshinshu Buddhists.

Bon Odori took place as part of the Bon observances in the summer. Before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Obon took place over three days.  This three day period was the only period where unmarried men and women could fraternize freely, a freedom they readily took to.

In the early Meiji Era, the government banned Bon Odori as an occasion that encouraged licentious behaviors – this in an era when the Meiji government was anxious to present a positive face to the western powers they were trying to imitate.

There were changes on the American side as well.  The very early Issei immigrants had actually never seen Bon Odori in Japan in their childhood because of the Meiji era ban.  The succeeding Taisho Era (1912-1925), saw a swing back to an emphasis on what it meant to be Japanese.  The ban on Bon Odori was lifted and saw a resurgence in the tradition, especially in the cities. where  new, more western-influenced  Bon Odori was created.  The song “Tokyo Ondo” was especially popular in the Taisho era and remains a popular Bon Odori song to this day.

In the history of Bon Odori in the U.S., the Bon Odori became popular among young plantation workers in Hawaii in 1905.  At this time, when someone died, everyone would come and bring the traditional “koden” money gift.  After the service, it became a social event with food and partying. These men eventually created an impromptu version of the Bon Odori.

In the mainland of the U.S., the Bon Odori was celebrated from San Francisco to Los Angeles from 1937, because Rev. Yoshio Iwanaga introduced the dance to the members of Buddhist temples. At the Nishi-Hongwanji temple  in Los Angeles, as many as 800-900 dancers  participated.  This custom ended with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Nonetheless, the Bon Odori, along with mochitsuki or “rice-pounding,” was much celebrated in the internment relocation camps of Japanese Americans during WWII.

As Japanese Americans returned to Los Angeles after WWII, the Bon Odori was resurrected in Jodoshinshu temples. From the 1950’s through the 1970’s, Nihon-buyo traditional dance teachers took over the Bon Odori dancing and at this time many of the men dropped out as it now was seen as much too “feminine.”

Then in the 1970’s, there was push to return the Bon Odori back to its more traditional folk roots; this move again attracted the men back to the Bon Odori.  Many of the traditional dance teachers dropped out of the scene at this time and those that remained tried to teach it in the more minyo folk dance style for approximately 15 years.

The men again returned with the new style of Bon Odori. Then the minyo dance teachers again returned to make it a more feminine style once again.

There are two categories of the Bon Odori music: ondo and bushi.   “Ondo” means “take the lead”, as in the expression “Ondo o totte kudasai” or “Please lead us”.  Thus Ondo is a style of singing in which there is a single lead singer with background voices  supporting with short phrases called “kakegoe”.  “Bushi” style is a long narrative song sung by a single person or group.  The use of the word Ondo to mean “dance”  does not occur in Japanese but was made up by Nikkei who misunderstood the meaning of Ondo.

One of the positive effects of the Bon Odori revived by the sansei and yonsei was the breaking down of past barriers between the Okinawans and mainland Japanese. The Okinawan song “Asadoya Yunta” was adopted as part of the repertory of Bon Odori music in 1990s in Los Angeles area.  It had a pitch and tempo that was popular with the older sansei.  This helped to break down the traditional prejudices based on prefectural origins.

The clothing worn during the Bon Odori here in Southern California is also another interesting phenomenon.  When the issei and kibei (U.S.-born and Japan-educated) women came to the United States, most of them brought with them at least one good kimono.

There was really not much opportunity to wear them here in Southern California and so with the Bon Odori, this now gave them a chance to wear their beautiful kimonos.  Later in the 1960s, the sansei would even dance barefoot or wear “furisode” (long sleeve for unmarried women) kimono regardless of their age of married status.

By the 1960’s and 70’s, yukata were now imported from Japan and many women would band together and wear the uniform yukata that designated their particular temple affiliations.  Then came the “happi” coat, again with the name of a particular temple.  The “fujinkai” or women’s association in temples also liked to wear the uniform happi and dance together.

Traditionally, Bon Odori taiko is to be a “support” to the dancers.  The beats are to aid in the motion of the dance, and so the taiko player must should know the dance itself to gain a sense of the “ma” or “space/silence” of the dance, music and rhythm.  The Bon Odori taiko is not to be noticed in the sense of a performance instrument.  It is to be missed only by its absence, but not noticed when played.  In this sense, Bon Odori taiko is the most difficult of taiko to play, since it involves supporting the other rather than projecting the self.  .


Rev. Masao Kakuryu Kodani was born and raised in Los Angles.  He graduated from UC Santa Barbara in East Asian Studies and later earned a M.A. degree from Ryukoku Universisty in Kyoto.


He later returned to Los Angeles and since 1968 has been a minister of the Senshin Buddhist Temple near the University of Southern California in the old Seinan Japanese American community.