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Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Celebrating Japanese Culture with the Obon Dance

© Jay Lazarin

We went to the Obon Dance at the Puna Hongwanji tonight. I love first walking up to the temple grounds, totally transformed by the strings of lanterns glowing in the night, the tall yagura platform calling everyone’s attention to the circle.


It is always great watching the elegant old ladies from the Japanese dance schools in their matching kimonos and perfectly coifed hair lead the way, their hands so graceful, their faces so calm. (Calm because they know that they know all the steps!) The little girls, of course, in their pink and red and Hello Kitty yukata with the big chiffon bows and their hair all full of flowers and curls are utterly meltingly adorable. The energy of the rambunctious Dharma School boys is infectious, with their matching Dharma School hapi coats and headbands, as they half dance half kung fu each other, the flashing red lights in their shoes syncopating their best moves. The YBA teens in tank tops and cut-off jeans move in packs, either gossiping and squealing by the food booths or running and jumping right into the middle of the circle, the boys energetically showing off for the girls. The favorite dances are obvious, the crowd surges when those start, everyone shouting chorus and response.


After all these years, I finally get to dance this time, sort of, no more babies to babysit on the side, although at eight and 12, Niu Niu and Hao Hao are just at that age, too embarrassed and too surly to do it just for me. Please? The bon odori is not a spectator sport, you really have to get in there and dance (after you have eaten of course, that is the other big part of it—tempura, teriyaki chicken, Spam musubi, cone sushi, shave ice, manju, mochi, corn on the cob, saimin—I always have to take a moment to peek in on the temple volunteers cooking madly in the kitchen, big clouds of mochiko billowing, the sounds of tempura hitting the oil…and inhale).


I find that the key to keeping up with the bon odori is to enter the circle just diagonally behind an old auntie, any old auntie will do. However, every time four-year-old Little Brother loses his slippah and I look away for one moment, my old auntie with the steps is gone, replaced by two Amazon haole women seven feet tall with gargantuan breasts and chopsticks in their hair who have even less of a clue than I. Finally I just carry Little Brother on my back and we dance the best we can (when he is not running off to play “Obi Kenobie” with his blue glow stick or holstering his blue glow stick down his pants). He loves the new Pokemon Ondo!


When the minyo band starts playing, though, watch out! Those old aunties can really move fast!

© 2011 – 2013, Frances Kai-Hwa Wang. All rights reserved.

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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog, Chicago is the World, JACL's Pacific Citizen, InCultureParent and Multicultural Familia. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at She can be reached at

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsWM. B. RILEY   |  Thursday, 24 October 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Several years ago, I danced in the Obon at hte American Folklife festival on the Mall in DC. Once he basic moves are learned,
    it is necessary to keep moving or you wil lbe tramples by tghe other dancers….A great way to celebrate one’s deceased family members and enjoy learning from an ancient culture.

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