TÖKYÖ — Choreographed dances have long been part of Japan’s obon festival, which, each summer, welcomes the spirits of the ancestors back to the world of the living. But organizers of some events this year are seeking to revitalize the traditional performance by adapting it for a contemporary setting.
A new guide to the history and etiquette of the bon odori, in which men and women of all ages dance in large circles around a makeshift platform, also recently hit the shelves. Some observers say the bon odori tradition has gained renewed relevance in the wake of the natural disasters in Japan’s Töhoku region.
With Japan expecting to attract worldwide attention when it hosts the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tökyö, some people are even suggesting that bon dances be turned into a cultural export.
One proponent of the dances’ charms is Yoshihide Otomo. Otomo was in charge of the score for public broadcaster NHK’s popular television drama series, “Amachan,” which is set in Japan’s northeastern coast around the time of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.
Anyone can join the dance circle, Otomo said. “When people dance together, they can feel like working together, even if they have different opinions. That’s needed these days.”
Otomo started an initiative called “Project Fukushima!” which is aimed at revitalizing Fukushima Prefecture in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Last year, he choreographed a new bon dance titled “Eejanaika Ondo,” which, roughly translated, means “the it’s all good dance.”
On Aug. 15, Otomo’s group was to have held a live performance of “Eejanaika Ondo” around a platform in the prefecture’s capital, Fukushima City.
Otomo is a member of a Tökyö metropolitan government panel tasked with promoting Japanese culture overseas. He and others recently caught the public’s attention by proposing that the term “bon odori” be rebranded as “bon dance.”
“It could become more international, like samba,” Otomo suggested. His dream is to perform bon dances at rock festivals abroad.
Meanwhile, in Tökyö’s low town, a mass performance of “Kawachi Ondo” was scheduled for Aug. 27 and 28. “Kawachi Ondo” is a dance that originated in Ösaka Prefecture. The event was expected to attract some 30,000 people. According to Isao Washizu, a member of the event’s organizing committee, the dance is well-suited to a modern setting.
“The singers leading the dance, having grown up with Western music, are interpreting it in a new way, and more young people are taking an interest,” Washizu said.
Washizu produced an album with a reggae remix of singer Kogiku Tsukinoya’s rendition of “Kawachi Ondo.” The combination of the Japanese melody and the upbeat reggae rhythm was lauded by disc jockeys.
Washizu calls the new sound “folk music for modern Japan.”
“With the addition of [modern instruments like] electric guitars, the dance is brought up-to-date without losing the original, ordinary people’s beat,” Washizu said.
On the subject of bon dances, a beginners’ guide to bon dances was published this past July by Seigensha Art Publishing Inc. Titled “Bon Odoru Hon,” (“Book to Perform Bon Dance”) the book contains the history of bon dances as well as tips on how to participate in the dances.
Hideki Tanaka, a former cultural property specialist with the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, said bon dances, as an embodiment of honoring ancestors’ spirits, have become especially relevant since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.
In the “Nishimonai” bon dance performed in the town of Ugo in northern Japan’s Akita Prefecture, women dance in costumes patched together from kimono passed down the generations by their mothers and grandmothers. This ancient concept of wearing one’s ancestors’ “souls” has recently been given a second look by people from other parts of Japan, as well.
After the disaster of March 2011, even as many other festive events were cancelled out of respect for the victims, the Tsukudajima bon dance in downtown Tökyö continued to be performed. Organizers said it was needed more than ever.
This year, too, masses of people danced alongside banners dedicated to missing victims of the disaster, who never received proper burials.
“I suppose the people of this country feel driven to dance because they think they might be able to meet and communicate with those in the other world,” Tanaka said. — Kyodo News