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Young Okinawans perform at Bon Dance Club
Members of the Young Okinawans perform at the Kailua Hongwanji  Temple Bon Dance Kailua, Hawaii - 1999. Photo: Melvin M. Takahashi, Yamada Bon Dance Club

The Obon in Hawai'i

This Buddhist observance honoring the ancestors came to Hawai`i in the late 19th century with a large wave of Japanese immigrants. Obon is observed in Hawai`i during the summer months, when family members place flowers and food on the graves of ancestors and friends and recite the nembutsu, an expression of appreciation, before the family altar.

The centerpiece of the ceremony is the bon dance. It is believed that the first bon dances were performed in the fields where the immigrants labored, and in between houses on the plantation. Later dances were held in temple courtyards. As work schedules began to conform to the Western five-day week, bon dances began to be scheduled for weekends. The bon dance is a way of expressing gratitude to ancestors and loved ones no longer here. It is a way of reflecting upon the preciousness and fragility of this life. Even though the sense of loss of family and loved ones is strong, a festive mood prevails at the dance. Although the dance nearly died out with the onslaught of anti-Japanese fervor that swept Hawai`i during the '40s, a post WW II event spurred its revival in 1951 when four Japanese-American veterans' groups sponsored a bon dance to honor the war dead from Hawaii. That revival was also powered by tourism and the convergence of several island traditions: interfaith services, interracial marriages, racial harmony, and bon dance clubs. Today the bon dancers are not only Japanese Buddhists, but Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and native Hawaiian, Protestant and Catholic. Bon dance clubs in recent years have enlivened the bon dance tradition. Each bon dance club specializes in the music and dance of one of the prefectures of Hawaii's immigrants. Some clubs provide musicians and group of dancers to lead the dancing, while others provide only the music.

Over the years, the ceremony and the practice of Buddhism itself underwent significant change to adapt to the islands' multicultural society. The 23-page essay submitted as part of the project explores the history of that transformation and the present place of the Obon in Hawaiian culture. Accompanying the essay are a 25-minute videotape of a bon dance performance, 30 8 x 10 color photos, and an audio cassette of bon dance music.

Originally submitted by: Daniel K. Inouye, Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Senator Neil Abercrombie, Representative (1st District) & Patsy T. Mink,Representative (2nd District).

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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