Japan’s “Bon Odori”: Welcoming Ancestors’ Spirits Home with Good, Plain Fun
Summer in Japan means bon odori—dances held to celebrate the Obon season, welcoming the spirits of ancestors back for a brief visit. A look at three of the most celebrated instances of this nationwide tradition.
A Fusion of Ancient Ancestor Worship and Buddhist Rituals
The end of the rainy season means the arrival of summer heat, and bon odori (bon dancing) events take place in parks, open spaces, and in shrine and temple precincts, with venues decorated with colorful lanterns and lively music playing. There’s something for everyone, from stalls selling cotton candy or shaved ice to traditional fair games like goldfish catching or target practice.
Bon odori, community dances held during Obon, which is observed in either July or August, is a uniquely Japanese custom that combines historical influences and religious practices. When the lunar calendar, based on the movements of the moon, and the 24 divisions of the solar year were transmitted to Japan from ancient China, seasonal changes like the lunar new year and the beginning of spring gained importance. The belief that the souls of the dead returned to the realm of the living at the new year and in the summer also gradually took root. This return of the souls in summer developed in syncretic form with the Buddhist practice of Urabon’e, giving rise to Obon as we know it today.
The word Urabon’e is said to derive from the Sanskrit ullambana, meaning “hanging upside down,” in reference to souls in hell. To feed those hungry souls, Chinese offered food and drink on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, a memorial service that came to overlap with the Japanese belief that the souls of departed ancestors returned home. Today, a similar service called segaki takes place at Buddhist temples in July.
It is recorded in Japanese history that Empress Suiko (r. 593–628) conducted a memorial service on this date in 606. It seems that even at such an early time, the practice existed of welcoming ancestors’ souls at Obon, spending time with them, and reciting prayers to send them off again after a brief visit.
During the Kamakura period (1192–1333), Ippen (1239–89), a Buddhist preacher who founded the Ji offshoot of the Jōdo Shinshū school, popularized the odori nenbutsu, during which adherents worked themselves into a frenzy as they chanted nenbutsu prayers. From then on into the Muromachi period (1333–1568), furyū, an idea of style and refinement encompassing fancy clothing and eye-catching accouterments, as well as lively tunes, came into fashion, and furyū elements were incorporated into folk dances. Influenced by this, the religious ceremony became nenbutsu odori folk entertainment, the model for today’s bon odori—a way for people to welcome the souls of departed ancestors and dance to please them before they leave again.
Today, bon odori events take place mainly during the Obon period of August 13 to 16. Here we introduce three bon odori that have evolved into distinctive traditions.
The Onodera family, which ruled from Nishimonai Castle in the town of Ugo in today’s Akita Prefecture, was wiped out in 1601 following the lord’s support for the losing side in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Today’s Nishimonai Bon Odori originated in a memorial dance held for the dead lord by his surviving retainers at Obon, which later fused with local dances praying for bountiful harvests.
At dusk, a circle of young women wearing hanui forms on the town’s main street. Hanui are kimono made from remnants of mothers’ kimono passed on to succeeding generations of daughters. The young women, protected by their ancestors’ spirits, perform one of the most exquisite dances in the country. The dancers’ colorful hanui and woven straw bonnets create a beautiful tableau by the light of bonfires.
Some of the dancers wear yukata cotton kimono and black hoods that leave only their eyes visible. They represent the spirits of the dead that appear along with ancestors’ spirits, dancing as a memorial to the departed. The black-hooded dancers are all young women who are eventually granted permission to wear hanui as their dancing skills improve.
Musicians in the raised stands along the route play the “Akita ondo” festival tune. Spectators enjoy the slow-paced dancing to this song, while the pace quickens when more lively tunes are played. After 10:00 in the evening, the “Akita ondo” lyrics turn rather suggestive, bringing knowing smiles to those who understand the local dialect.
Himeshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea off the northern coast of Ōita Prefecture, is mentioned in the eighth century Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), Japan’s oldest surviving historical chronicle. The island has a mere 1,600 inhabitants, but it is the home of a unique variety of bon odori that attracts crowds far outnumbering the residents every summer. Venues called bon tsubo are set up at the Himeshima Port ferry plaza and the island’s six hamlets, and dancers visit each site in turn.
The event features a dozen or more original dances created every year, but the highlight is the traditional bon dances. Women clad in kimono and woven straw bonnets move elegantly in the saruman dayū dance, and men and women dance in pairs in the zenidaiko odori and the aya odori, where the men’s energetic moves contrast with the women’s fluid dancing style.
The most famous of all the dances, the kitsune odori, has its roots in the Kamakura period nenbutsu odori. Children wearing white costumes and white makeup mimic foxes (kitsune) in this humorous dance.
White foxes are believed to be messengers of the gods and are enshrined in Inari shrines across the country together with the deity of rice. According to island lore, turning into a white fox during the Obon period ensures that prayers for plentiful harvests and fish catches will be heard.
At some point, the tanuki odori by children dressed as tanuki racoon dogs also became part of the traditional repertoire. The children look very cute in their costumes and always earn a big round of applause from spectators.
Gujō-Hachiman, an old town now part of the city of Gujō, Gifu Prefecture, is often called a miniature Kyoto. Buildings dating from the area’s days as a castle town still stand, and small waterways along the streets flow with fresh water from the Nagara River. The town’s 400-year-old bon odori takes place over 31 summer nights, with all-night dancing over the four days of the Obon period, when dancers carry on until daybreak.
Members of the Gujō Odori Preservation Society, wearing identical yukata, display perfectly coordinated dance moves at the center of each night’s festivities. Surrounding them are all manner of other dancers, showing off their own moves in their own summer yukata.
Atop a raised stage, shamisen, taiko drum, flute, and wooden clapper players perform the 10 local ohayashi festival tunes. Dancers move elegantly to the quiet melody of “Kawasaki,” a tune brought to the district from the Mie Prefecture river port of Kawasaki by pilgrims to Ise Shrine. The dance to “Harukoma,” which harks back to Edo period (1603–1868) days when Gujō was a major producer of horses, features vigorous hand movements mimicking handling horses’ reins.
There are various tales concerning the origins of Gujō Odori. One holds that it began when, early in the Edo period, the lord of the town sponsored bon dancing as a way of encouraging residents to mingle. Another says that bon dancing was a way of conveying to succeeding generations the sorrows of farmers who mounted futile rebellions against high taxation.
At any rate, no one stood on ceremony during all-night dancing. Everyone sang, drank, and danced together as equals, and the event was surely welcome recreation for ordinary folks. People continue to enjoy all-night dancing today in this small town known for its history and enduring customs.