By John Sammon
Michael Yoshihara said one of the greatest pleasures in playing Japanese American jazz and pop music at the Obon Festival in addition to the joy it provides the spectators, is the knowledge that it aids Buddhist Temples to continue operation and to preserve traditions.
“We help by attracting spectators to the Obon,” Yoshihara said.
Yoshihara is president and organizer of the San Jose Chidori Band, itself a long-time tradition. For 64 years the group has played Japanese popular music. The band was born out of the tragedy of Japanese Americans illegally imprisoned during World War II.
Obon is a Japanese custom honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors and features a dance called “Bon Odori,” designed to welcome the spirits of the dead. Different dances can be performed based on different themes or regions of Japan (one dance expressed sorrow for the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan).
The idea of the dance has its roots in Japanese history going back hundreds of years to the time of Buddha. According to tradition a disciple of the Buddha was upset that his deceased mother had fallen into an underworld of angry spirits and asked the Buddha how his mother could be released. The Buddha advised him to make offerings to Buddhist monks. He did and the mother spirit was released to a more pleasant realm and so the young man danced with joy (Bon Odori).
Brought to the U.S. by Japanese immigrants in the late 1890s, the tradition, in addition to its religious overtones, evolved into a yearly celebration of Japanese and Japanese American culture, food and entertainment. Hosted by Buddhist Temples during street festivals held every summer from July through September, the events take place in communities throughout Northern and Southern California.
San Jose Chidori Band will perform at Obon Festivals scheduled to be held in Oakland and Palo Alto on Aug. 6, San Mateo and Southern Alameda County (Union City) on Aug. 13.
The San Jose Obon Festival was held on July 9 and 10 and that of San Francisco July 23 and 24.
“We play at five of the Obon Festivals including San Jose, Mountain View, Alameda and Oakland,” Yoshihara said.
Translated from Japanese, Chidori is a bird noted for its sweet singing (called “enka” in Japanese).
There are 24 members of the Chidori Band who travel to Obon festivals by car-pooling. A van is rented to haul equipment including a sound system, mikes, band stands and instruments. The age range of the performers goes from 17 to 84.
“We have one member, Shigeru Tashiro, who is in his 80’s and has been a part of the group for 54 years,” Yoshihara said. “He’s our male vocalist and sings solo. Our base player (Rod Arii) has been with the band just under fifty years.”
Yoshihara said the group also welcomes young musicians.
“We’re always looking for younger singers and musicians,” he said. “Sometimes we let them try us out, performing for us during the summer months to see if they like it.”
The band is a nonprofit organization and the members are volunteers. Yoshihara is a financial planner in his work life.
Both sets of his parents, children at the time, were illegally imprisoned during World War II, suspected of treachery. Yoshihara’s mother Mae and her family were sent to the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona and then the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Northeastern California. His father (George) was sent to the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas.
“Both my grandparents and parents had been involved in agriculture and farming before and after the war,” Yoshihara said. “My dad’s family also ran a produce store in Compton (Los Angeles County).”
Many of the original Chidori Band members as prisoners performed in musical groups formed in the concentration camps during World War II.
“Bands originated inside the camps for entertainment,” Yoshihara said.
When the prisoners were released after the war, the bands broke up as the former inmates returned to their homes in different cities.
However, people were trying to reestablish their lives and the bands had been an activity that brought them together.
Japanese American community leaders in San Jose saw music as a culturally significant and unifying activity. The San Jose Chidori band was formed in 1953 to play music for Issei (First Generation Japanese Americans).
Yoshihara, who plays saxophone and keyboard, grew up in San Jose and attended San Jose State University majoring in music.
“I had a music scholarship but I got sick with an intestinal tract problem and couldn’t play because of the pain,” he said. “I changed course and became a financial planner, but I never lost my love of music. I had a friend who was always asking me to get involved with the Chidori Band. Because I had my own (financial planning) practice, I had the flexibility to take part.”
In addition to Chidori Yoshihara also plays with the SF J-Town (Japantown Jazz Band) in San Francisco and the Weslie Jazz Ensemble in San Jose.
Director of the San Jose Chidori Band is Duane Takahashi. Musical arrangements for the band are jointly shared between Takahashi and Yoshihara.
Chidori is recognized today as one of the country’s only continuously existing bands to play Japanese Popular Music.
“Each Obon Festival we play is different,” Yoshihara said. “We do our performances based on what each festival wants. The traditions of different temples can differ. They may have originally come from different areas of Japan.”
One of the songs the band is often asked to play is “Sukiyaki,” a huge Japanese language hit song of the 1960s that became especially popular with non-Japanese American fans, who titled it after an Asian meat-vegetable dish. Even though it was not the song’s real title, which is “I Look Up in the Sky as I Walk.”
Yoshihara said one of the most difficult things about running a band is the transport and setup.
“You have to determine what the band’s needs are and what they’re capable of doing,” he said. “You have to convey to the host (temple) at the event what we can do and find out what is expected. Unlike a night club which has equipment already set up, we have portable gear. Our audio members set us up and they do a fabulous job. What type of (sound) equipment is used depends on whether the performance is indoors or outdoors.
You also have to keep 24 members of the band happy,” Yoshihara added.
Many of the performers have played together for over 30 years.
Band members’ skill levels range from the extremely talented to the not-quite-as-talented.
“Once in a while we get a sour note but we tolerate it,” Yoshihara said. “Some of our players are extremely talented and have played in college and professional-quality groups, while others had no previous musical training. They’re a great bunch of people.”
The band will play at the Aki Matsuri (Fall Festival) celebration to be held at the Wesley United Methodist Church, 566 n. 5th St. in San Jose’s Japantown on Oct. 1.
The band’s big yearly fund-raiser will take place Nov. 19 at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin Annex (640 N. 5th St. in San Jose). The venue is inside a historic building which over the past few years has undergone extensive restoration.
In addition, the band is readying a CD album to be released this fall celebrating 64 years of existence to be simply titled, “64.”
The band relies on private donations for its continued existence. Yoshihara said anyone interested in donating to the San Jose Chidori
Band or taking part may call him at (408) 712-9259.
For information on the San Jose Chidori Band, go to Chidoriband.com. The band also has a Facebook page.
Caption: Ron Montano, Michael Yoshihara and Tsukasa Kobashi. Photo by Denise Young.