By Andy Yamashita, Contributing writer
SAN FRANCISCO — You can hear the music before you ever see the festival.
Less than a half-mile from the buzz of cars and tourists at Union Square, the low deep rumble of taiko drums and the high piercing shinobue echo off the buildings surrounding Yerba Buena Gardens — not the normal sounds associated with Downtown San Francisco on a Sunday afternoon.
This was coming from the Bon Dancing Festival presented by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on Sept. 1. Organized by Reiko Iwanaga, Wynn Kiyama, and Yumi Hatta, the event celebrating traditional Japanese dancing and music served as a way to remember the past and share the customs of the Japanese American community.
“Bon dance has been part of the American experience for at least 88 years,” Hatta said. “Even though the origins are in Japan, people have been participating in it and creating works based on their experience in America as well.”
Bon dancing has long been associated with Buddhism, the story of Moggallana, and many view it as a way to pay respects to the sacrifices of ancestors by participating in a gathering of joy writes Rev. Tetsuo Unno of the Pasadena Buddhist Church.
However, bon dancing did not become a unifying part of the Japanese American experience until the arrival of Reverend Yoshio Iwanaga in 1930 according to Linda Akiyama, a graduate student at Portland State University in the late 1980s whose thesis focused on the evolution of Bon dancing in North America.
Iwanaga reframed Bon dancing in the context of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, and spent decades travelling up and down the west coast to pass his teachings along to communities in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. This year was the 88th anniversary of Iwanaga’s introduction of the art form to the United States.
“I grew up with Bon dancing as part of my family and community life but I didn’t know this story which I thought enriches your appreciation of where Bon dancing comes from,” Hatta said.
Hoping to keep the memory and legacy of her father-in-law alive, Reiko Iwanaga — a Bon dancing master in her own right under the name Hanayagi Reimichi — connected with Hatta and Kiyama among others to discuss the possibility of holding a Bon Dance in San Francisco.
“It wasn’t a simple event planning thing,” Hatta said. “There was not one person who said, ‘We’re going to do this.’ It sort of evolved. The seeds were already out there. Wynn was doing the [Iwanaga Photo Album] project, Linda Akiyama had already done her thesis, Reiko was already doing the San Jose Obon Odori Festival, and there was a whole network of Bon dance activists from Southern California to the Bay Area and Portland and beyond.”
The opportunity they were looking for arose two years ago when the World Buddhist Women’s Convention announced it would take place at the hotel right across the street from Yerba Buena Gardens. With around 2,000 women flying into San Francisco for the conference, Iwanaga and Hatta figured they could get a decent amount of participation.
And they were right. At 1 p.m. on Sunday, about five hundred people wearing happi coats representing Seattle, Oakland, Maui, and everywhere in between showed up to dance in the middle of Downtown San Francisco. Led by Iwanaga and accompanied by San Jose Taiko and koto players Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto and Brian Wong, the dancing went on for almost two hours.
“It was amazing,” artistic staff for San Jose Taiko Yurika Chiba said. “We didn’t really know what the turnout was going to be, and since the Obon season sort of passed already it felt like a really nice end of summer feeling for everyone to get together and do it one last time.”
It wasn’t just people associated with the convention who turned out to dance. Onlookers gathered around the park to watch, and several were eventually lured in to learn some of the easier or more popular songs like “Tanko Bushi” and “Shiawase Samba.”
“I really liked it,” Diego Solano, a participant at the festival, said. “There’s lots of people to meet. You just go out there and have fun — there’s music, dancing, people. There’s something for everybody at these things.”
In fact, it was so crowded that many people chose to dance outside the chairs that made up the dancing area, especially for energetic songs like PJ Hirabayashi’s live performance of “Ei Ja Nai Ka.”
“It was very gratifying to know people were interested in participating, and maybe for the new ones to learn about it,” Iwanaga said. “Everyone jumped in and were so enthusiastic that I wasn’t worried at all about participation or knowing the dances. They were just in the spirit of it and followed along so that was really very wonderful, very inspiring.”
Added Hatta: “Everybody is invited. You don’t have to be registered at the convention. The event is for temple people, non-temple people, people who are curious, and then to encourage people to just dance. That’s the thing about Bon dancing. It is a participatory thing, no experience required.”
In fitting fashion, the festival began and ended with “Obon no Uta.” According to Iwanaga, the choreography to this dance is still the same as it was when her father-in-law brought it over from Japan all those years ago, and many temples still use it today as the opening and closing song for their own Obon Odori Festivals — a suitable homage to the man who brought Bon dancing to America in the first place.
“The history has always been familiar to me,” she said. “But it’s nice to know that 88 years later we’re still remembering that.”