Honor the Dead with Bon Odori

A documentary photo from the Tsukiji Honganji Bon Odori Matsuri – the popular Bon Odori festival in Tokyo. | Julianne Hide

For many, summer is a time for freewheeling fun, without the typical responsibilities of an academic year or simply maintaining one’s own comfort in the winter. But for the Japanese, summer is a time to reflect on those who have gone before us with gratitude and appreciation. One of Japan’s biggest festivals happens in mid-summer each year, and it is called Bon Odori. Bon lasts a week, and it is the week when traditionally, the spirits of ancestors come back to visit us.

The story of Bon Odori comes from an old Buddhist text; specifically, the legend of Mokuren, one of Shakamuni Buddha’s ten disciples. When Mokuren was able to check up on his dead mother, he became distraught at what he saw. He saw that his mother’s spirit was trapped, suffering in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. Desperate, he went to the Buddha for succor. Buddha advised him to make offerings to the other monks who had completed their summer retreats. He made the offerings, and Mokuren succeeded in releasing his mother’s spirit. With that, he danced with happiness, having gained a true understanding of the hardships his mother had endured and the sacrifices she had made for Mokuren.

Bon Odori Drummer | Ahmad Faizal Yahya

Now, to celebrate Bon Odori, just like the story of Mokuren in the ancient text, the people dance. A lot. Musicians such as singers and taiko drummers provide rhythmic accompaniment for the dancing. Particularly outside of the regional Bon dances of Japan, it doesn’t matter if you think you know how to dance or not, the essence of Bon Odori is to dance with the utter joy and sheer glee of having the immense fortune to breathe and bound and move and spin, whether you think that’s called dancing or not.

Bon Odori is celebrated throughout Japan in the months of July and August. Depending on the region, the local dance and music will differ. However, the sentiment is the same: Bon is a time for everyone to come together in a grateful celebration of the spirits of their ancestors. Dancers circle around a raised platform called a yagura, where the singers and taiko drummers perform. The celebration carries on past sunset and into the dark, with lanterns lighting up the area around the yagura.

Senior citizens perform the traditional Bon Odori dance during the summer festival celebrations in Nakano, Tokyo.

Summer celebrations of Bon are not just limited to Japan. While there are celebrations all over the world, Bon Odori has been an integral part of the Japanese-American culture of Hawai’i since the early 20th century. Not long after that, celebrations were established throughout California that are now considered an integral part of their local communities. Now, many major cities celebrate Bon Odori all over the country and all over the world.

Be on the lookout for your local Bon Odori celebration. Most take place between mid-July to early September. There, you can find music, food, martial arts exhibitions, tea ceremonies, and – of course – a lot of dancing. As you move to the rhythmic pounding of the drums, take a moment to appreciate the sacrifices that your ancestors made, and everything they did so that you could be there, celebrating life at Bon Odori.

%d bloggers like this: