Traditional spirit-welcoming Bon dances get modern spin


Choreographed dance has long been part of Bon festivals, which welcome ancestors’ spirits back to the world of the living each summer, but organizers of some events this year are seeking to revitalize the traditional performance by adapting it for a contemporary setting.

A new guide on the history and manners of the Bon-odori, where men and women of all ages dance in circles around a makeshift platform, has recently been published, with the tradition having gained renewed relevance in the wake of major disasters.

With Japan expected to draw worldwide attention by hosting the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, some even suggest that Bon dances can be turned into a cultural export.

One proponent of the dances’ charms is Yoshihide Otomo, who was in charge of the score for NHK’s popular television drama series “Amachan,” set on the northeastern coast around the time of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters.

“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.”

Aiming to revitalize Fukushima Prefecture after the earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Otomo started an initiative called Project Fukushima! and last year he choreographed a new Bon dance, Ejanaika Ondo — roughly meaning Ain’t It a Great Dance.

On Aug. 15, Otomo’s group will perform Ejanaika Ondo around a platform to be erected in the prefectural capital.

As a member of an experts’ panel at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government tasked with promoting Japanese culture overseas, Otomo and others recently caught the public’s attention by proposing that 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.

In Tokyo’s “shitamachi” (old downtown), meanwhile, a mass performance on Aug. 27 and 28 of the Kawachi Ondo dance originating from Osaka Prefecture is expected to draw some 30,000 people.

Isao Washizu, a member of the organizing committee for the event, said 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.

He produced an album with a reggae remix of young singer Kogiku Tsukinoya’s rendition of the Kawachi Ondo, and the combination of the Japanese melody and upbeat 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,” he said.

A beginners’ guide on Bon dances published in July by Seigensha Art Publishing Inc., “Bon Odoru Hon” (“Book to Perform Bon Dance”) contains a history of Bon dances as well as tips on how to take part.

Hideki Tanaka, a former cultural property specialist in the Cultural Affairs Agency, said Bon dances, as an embodiment of honoring ancestors’ spirits, are particularly relevant since the earthquake and tsunami disasters.

In the Nishimonai Bon dance performed in the town of Ugo, 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 elsewhere in Japan as well.

After the disasters of March 2011, even as many other festive events were canceled out of respect for the victims, the Tsukudajima Bon dance in central Tokyo kept being performed, with organizers feeling it was needed more than ever.

This year, too, masses of people danced alongside banners dedicated to missing victims of the disasters who never received a proper burial.

“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.