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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 1. Kinetic Death: O Bon - Hawai’i’s Japanese Dance for the Dead

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43885


Japanese Obon dance festivals date back over five hundred years to the Buddhist sutra of Mokuren (Mulian in Chinese), in which a son offers sacrifices to the Buddhist boddhisattva, Avolokitsvara, and can help release his mother from hell. In celebration of her release, Mokuren supposedly danced for joy, beginning the history of the Dance for the Dead festivals in Japan. When Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawai'i, they brought the custom of dancing Obon, and soon each Buddhist temple became known for its local traditions, dances, dress, and most importantly, its food. Now, in the summer months, Hawai'ian residents eagerly look forward to the various O’bon dances celebrated across the islands, visiting various temples, and purchasing the local treats while dancing in commemoration of the dead. This chapter offers a brief history of the O’bon tradition on the island of Oahu, Hawai'i, and then examines the more specific aspects of these dances at the Shinshukyokai Buddhist Mission through ethnographic fieldwork, and interviews. The annual Bon Dance at Shinshukyokai Mission follows O’Bon services for the dead, usually held the week before and after the dances themselves. The services honour the deceased ancestors of the mission, while the dances themselves serve as an extension into the broader community, serving food, offering entertainment, and helping to forge a network extending to the neighbourhood surrounding the temple. The preparations are extensive for the dance, and volunteer dance troops travel from temple to temple throughout the islands, teaching the traditional dances of the dead to safeguard the temple’s relationship to the community in such a way to strengthen its local Buddhist and Japanese identity.

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