Obon: Dances for the Dead

Obon Festival, Tokyo, 2011. Photo by bhollar via Flickr.
Obon Festival, Tokyo, 2011. Photo by bhollar via Flickr.

Obon is a Japanese holiday to honor deceased ancestors, much like the European Halloween or the Latin American Día de los Muertos. Rooted in Buddhist traditions, Obon ensures that we express gratitude for the hard work of the generations before us.

The Ullambana Sutra, a Buddhist text, tells the story of a monk named Mokuren who was initially unable to help his suffering mother’s spirit pass on. In response, the Buddha created a ritual and offering for the living to assist their ancestors’ souls and bless relatives who are still living. These practices became the basis for the modern-day Obon festival.

Obon festivals are held in July and August, in Japan and Japanese immigrant communities throughout the world. The original sutra appointed the fifteenth day of the seventh month as the holiday, but there are variations in date because of differences between the Gregorian and lunar calendars. The festivals feature food, music, and most importantly, dancing!

Bon Odori, San Jose Obon Festival, 2012. Photo by --Mark-- via Flickr Creative Commons.
Bon Odori, San Jose Obon Festival, 2012.
Photo by –Mark– via Flickr.

 

When Mokuren’s mother’s soul found peace, it is said that he reacted by dancing. Obon dancing, or bon odori, is an important part of Obon festivals throughout Japan, with certain regions even having their own unique dances. Dances have been also developed abroad by Japanese emigrants living in countries such as America or Brazil. Live music, including taiko drumming, typically accompanies the dancing.

In Japan, some families return to their parents’ homes to celebrate Obon. These celebrations often include cleaning up family gravesites and offering food to ancestors. Another custom involves floating lanterns down a river in hopes that the lights will help guide souls that remain on this earthly plane.

Even though Obon is based on Buddhist beliefs, no one is excluded from celebrating. Obon festivals are important community events, and celebrating the departed doesn’t require any special religious belief. The Obon dances and food here in America may be different from those in Japan, but all the festivals maintain the same reverence for family and community.

Visitors get in the Obon spirit with a communal bon odori dance at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo by Russell Kitagawa.
Visitors get in the Obon spirit with a communal bon odori dance at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo by Russell Kitagawa.

 

JANM’s Natsumatsuri Family Festival on August 9, 2014 will feature a lecture on Obon traditions by Rimban Bill Briones of Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and a participatory bon odori dance. Come learn more about Obon and celebrate your ancestors!

This post was written by Mitchell Lee, one of JANM’s 2014 summer program interns. Mitchell is a student at UCLA, where he is majoring in Japanese and Asian American Studies.

Omikuji: Telling Fortunes the Japanese Way

Flickr-Jesslee Cuizon-eelssej
Women tie their omikuji to the wire rack at a Japanese shrine.
Photo: Jesslee Cuizon (jessleecuizon.com) via Flickr.

Omikuji are Japanese paper fortunes found at shrines across Japan. Traditionally, you shake a cylinder until a numbered bamboo stick falls out. The number on the stick corresponds with a paper fortune, which is then given to you by the priest or shrine maiden. Today, many shrines have boxes that allow you to randomly select a fortune yourself.

The paper you receive will predict your upcoming luck with one of several ratings, ranging from dai-kichi (great blessing) to dai-kyou (great curse). Oftentimes your luck will be further broken down into forecasts for specific categories like “romance” or “travel.”

If your fortune is good, the custom is to keep the paper slip close to you, like in a purse or wallet. If it’s bad, many fold up the strip and tie it to a pine tree or rack of metal wires that is provided at shrines. Traditionally, a pine branch is used because the Japanese word for “pine” (matsu) is phonetically the same as the verb for “to wait,” although written in different characters (kanji). The hope is that the bad luck will wait by the tree instead of coming back home with you.

CR Omikuji 1 Shoji
JANM volunteers hand out omikuji at the 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Tokumasa Shoji.

 

You can get an omikuji any time, although many people specifically include it in Hatsumode (the first Shinto shrine visit of the Japanese new year) or seek it out before major life events like exams. Omikuji are not commonly found in the United States outside of Japanese enclaves. However, you’ve probably seen what some say is its modern-day incarnation—the fortune cookie!

Whether you have an important decision coming up, or are just looking for a little guidance, an omikuji opportunity is coming soon. Visit the omikuji table at JANM’s free Natsumatsuri Family Festival on Saturday, August 9, 2014 and see what’s in store for you!

The Thrill of Taiko

Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko perform at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.
Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko perform at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

Taiko drumming is energetic, rhythmic, and exciting—the thundering of a taiko drum will catch someone’s attention regardless of how near or far they are.

The word “taiko” literally means “fat drum” in Japanese. Historically, taiko drums have been used in Japan for religious ceremonies and local festivals. In feudal times, a one-drum act was typical, but in the 1950s, kumi-daiko—an ensemble made up of different types of taiko drums—was introduced. This is the style that remains popular today.

In a taiko ensemble, the biggest drum is called an o-daiko, the mid-sized drum is a chu-daiko, and the smallest is called a shime-daikoKumi-daiko can accommodate a variety of musical styles, including jazz and pop.

Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko perform at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Tsuneo Takasugi.
Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko perform at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Tsuneo Takasugi.

 

When Japanese immigrants introduced taiko to the United States in the early 20th century, its practice was a way to secure their cultural identity and also to have a collective voice as an ethnic group. Today, taiko drumming can be seen in many different contexts, whether they are traditional Japanese festivals like obon (honoring the dead) or musical revues. Just this past weekend, JANM was proud to host and co-present the 2014 World Taiko Gathering, which united players from around the world for workshops, concerts, and jam sessions.

In just a few weeks, taiko will return to JANM when East LA Taiko presents a free performance during our all-day Natsumatsuri Festival on August 9, 2014. A Los Angeles–based group founded in 1991 by Maceo Hernandez, East LA Taiko is a great example of kumi-daiko’s adaptability. The group incorporates Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms and ska-punk flavors alongside traditional Japanese beats, fusing them into a uniquely LA sound. Hernandez, who has trained in Japan, is a veteran taiko drummer who has performed worldwide. In recent years the group has partnered with singer-songwriter Lysa Flores, who brings her own Latin flare to their performances.

Taiko drums are versatile and thrilling instruments. To experience taiko is to experience more than just drumbeats—it’s to hear the hearts, minds and souls of the players.

This post was written by Dina Furumoto, one of JANM’s interns through the 2014 Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program. Dina is a student at Cal Poly Pomona, where she is majoring in Sociology.

Celebrate Summer at JANM’s Natsumatsuri Family Festival

2014 Natsumatsuri Family Festival

Here at JANM, we are gearing up for one of our biggest events of the year—the Natsumatsuri Family Festival, on August 9, 2014.

Free to all visitors all day (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.), this exciting festival will include a taiko performance, beginners’ taiko lessons, a traditional bon odori dance, a karaoke competition, Japanese-style fortune telling, and so much more.

“Natsumatsuri” literally means “summer festival” in Japanese. It is a much loved annual tradition in Japan, where a variety of gatherings all over the country celebrate the season with games, ceremonies, displays, dancing, and food.

To help you get in the JANM Natsumatsuri spirit, First & Central will be spotlighting different aspects of the big day and its various activities. Follow our staff members and interns as they explore taiko, omikuji, the UGLARworks art collective, obon, and the meaning of the festival itself.

Check out the complete schedule of events: janm.org/natsumatsuri2014