Photo Essay: Bon Festivals

This weekend, cities along the west coast will hold their annual Bon festivals. Bon Odori communal folk dances are a central part of the bon festival, a Buddhist summer ceremony in which the spirits of departed ancestors are welcomed back to the world of the living for their annual visit. A national custom in Japan by the Edo period, bon festivals became a big part of Japanese immigrant life in the continental United States and Hawai’i before World War II. Bon dances are a series of communal dances performed by men, women, and children alike while moving in a circle around musicians—or sometimes recorded music—on a central platform called a yagura. Dancers often wear yukata, and some dances involve the use of fans, sticks or other implements. The specific dances may differ from region to region and came to incorporate elements of local cultures (e.g. hula movements in Hawai’i) as well. Though ostensibly a somber occasion, the festival and the dancing generally takes on the celebratory air of a summer festival.

Bon dances also took place in many of the camps that held Japanese Americans during World War II. Most Japanese Americans spent the summer of 1942 held in temporary “assembly centers,” and many held bon festivals in those centers.[1] Later, in the large War Relocation Authority camps, festivals drew thousands of participants and spectators and were an activity enjoyed by Issei and Nisei alike. They also took place in some of the smaller internment camps run by the army or Justice Department. Bon dancing even took place in the all-male environment of the Santa Fe Internment Camp, with some Issei men dressing as women to add to the festivity.[2] Bon festivals and dancing remain a major part of Japanese American community life today.

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Before World War II, the Bon Odori festival took place on Main Street in Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japantown, 1935. Courtsey of the Museum of History & Industry.

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Bon odori dancers, Seattle, 1935. Courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry.

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Emi Matsumoto, Banto-Mikaru Odori 21-30 Mess, Aug 27 1944, Heart Mountain concentration camp. Courtesy of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and Yoshio Okumoto.

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Original WRA caption: Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado. Although music for the Bon Odori held August 14, was furnished by phonograph records and a loud speaker, it was supplemented by the two drummers shown. They are, left to right, Koshiro Kumagai and Jutaro Gondo. The Bon Odori was sponsored by the Granada Buddhist Church. August 14, 1943. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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The Bon Odori dance festival was held on Main Street in post-WWII Seattle, 1950. Courtesy of the Seattle Buddhist Temple Archives, the Ogawa Collection.

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Color slide of three people posing in Odori costumes, fourth is in western style clothes. From Left to right: Ida (Hobara) Sugahiro, Katie (Iwamoto) Tamiyasu, Wendy (Hongo) Peace, and Lily (Tsujimura) Hongo Fujita, Portland, Oregon, c. 1948-1954. Courtesy of Frank C. Hirahara Collection, Oregon Nikkei Endowment.

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Color slide of two posing children in their Odori costumes. Second from the left is Janice (Ikata) Marks, Portland, Oregon, c. 1948-1954. Courtesy of Frank C. Hirahara Collection, Oregon Nikkei Endowment.

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Obon dancers in flower hats performing an Odori folk dance at Obon. Woman in center of image is identified as Masano Hachiya Yamasaki. Obon is an annual event hosted by the Oregon Buddhist Church (now known as Oregon Buddhist Temple) and attended by the wider Nikkei community, Portland, Oregon, c. 1948-1954. Courtesy of Frank C. Hirahara Collection, Oregon Nikkei Endowment.

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Two women posing in kimonos and straw hats at Odori. From left to right: Ruth Saito and Grace (Tachibana) Ishikawa, Portland, Oregon, c. 1948-1954. Courtesy of Frank C. Hirahara Collection, Oregon Nikkei Endowment.

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Color slide of four unidentified women and one unidentified man in kimonos or yukatas, outside performing a Odori at night, Portland, Oregon, c. 1948-1954. Courtesy of Frank C. Hirahara Collection, Oregon Nikkei Endowment.

Text exerted from a Densho Encyclopedia entry by Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director

[Header image: Bon Odori dancers at Granada (Amache) concentration camp, c. 1942-45. From the James G. Lindley Collection.]

Single Comment
    • 15/07/2016 at 0:56

    I love these photos. I grew up Obon dancing in San Jose in the 1970s — it seemed like the only time my mother would fuss over my hair and put lipstick on me. I now celebrate Obon with my daughter in Oakland. Thank you for posting these!

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