Summer Festival – Japanese


Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom that is intended to honor ancestral spirits but has evolved into a family reunion holiday where families clean and honor their ancestor’s graves.  Obon takes place in the summer and the participants where yukatas, which are light cotton kimonos (typical Japanese garment).  The festival or celebration often includes a carnival, traditional Japanese food and dancing called Bon Odori.

When I was in elementary school my mom used to take me to the Obon festival every year.  It was always held during the first weekend in August at the Gardena Buddhist Church.  During the months of June and July I would go to Obon practice with my friends and their moms (all of whom were of Japanese descent).  At Obon practice, everyone would make a giant circle in the church’s parking lot and we would all move one direction in the circle practicing the traditional dances.  There were speakers in the center of the circle that would allow the instructor who stood in the middle with a microphone to teach everyone the dances.  The instructor would teach everyone each step and then we would put it all together and they would play traditional Japanese music so we could practice the entire dance.  There were also Taiko drums (traditional Japanese drums) set up and were sometimes played along with the music, usually by young men.  There were several different dances to learn.  Some of the dances used a Japanese fan, in other dances you used a towel, and there were some where you just used your hands.  I remember I liked going to the practices because I got to go off and play with my friends, although we did get in trouble by our mothers sometimes for not taking the dance practice seriously.  Then during the first weekend in August Obon was held at the Gardena Buddhist Church.  My family and I usually went Saturday afternoon and stayed until night.  My mom would dress me up in a kimono, but she didn’t make me wear my hair in a bun or do the traditional socks and slippers.  She let me wear my hair down and wear whatever sandals I wanted.  There was a neighborhood street next to the church that would be blocked off so everyone could dance in the the street.  Families would set up lawn chairs or picnic blankets and watch their children and other family members dance.  Usually the men would watch, or mothers with infants would watch, but that’s not to say men and boys did not participate in the bon odori because they did, but there were usually more female participants.  The environment was very fun and casual.  You didn’t have to do all the dances either.  You could stop and go back to your family and take a break and eat some food.  And if you forgot the dance steps you just tried your best and looked at other people around to help yourself remember the dances.  After the dancing was over there was a carnival set up in the church’s parking lot.  I remember there was Bingo, a moon bounce, and other various carnival games.  My favorite was the goldfish one.  There was a inflatable kiddie pool filled with water and small plastic fish bowls floating in the water.  You paid a ticket to get three ping pong balls and tried to throw the balls into one of the floating bowls.  If you got the ball into the floating bowl you won a goldfish.  The carnival also had traditional Japanese food such as yakitori, which was grilled teriyaki chicken or beef on a stick and musubis (rice balls).  As a kid I never understood what Obon was for or what it was about.  I just liked going because it was fun and it was something that I had been doing every summer for a long time.  I asked my mom why she took us to Obon and she said it was because she knew we (my brother and I) had fun and because our other friends and their families went.  Also my mother said she took us because my grandmother used to take her to the same Obon when she was a kid and she liked it.

Obon is a prominent Japanese festival that is documented in various works such as Paul Norbury’s guide to Japanese customs and etiquette entitled Culture Smart! Japan on page 54. Obon is a cultural festival that helps create a sense of cultural identity, and is a tradition that has been passed down in my family.  It gave me a sense of cultural identity yet at the same time I appreciate the fact that my mom didn’t force me to do all the traditional things like wear my hair in a tight bun and wear the traditional wooden slippers that were extremely uncomfortable.  Below is a picture of Obon.

Annotation: Norbury, Paul. Culture Smart! Japan. Great Britain: Kuperard: 2003.

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