Introduction - What is "Bon-Odori"?

It might be like this kind of scene that after the sunset, on summer festival, with Taiko drums beaten on a tower built at the center of an open space, men and women of all ages dance cheerfully together in a circle with rhythmical songs.

However, actually, there are many different styles of Bon-Odori Dance across Japan, without a tower built, without getting in a circle, without having men and women of all ages together.

Either in cities or in countryside, Bon-Odori Dance have been associated with Japanese summer.

Let’s walk through the history and local styles of Bon-Odori Dance in Japan.

What is Bon-Odori Dance?

Bon-Odori Dance seems to be now regarded as a part of summer festival programs, but the original Bon-Odori Dance is a ritual to welcome and send the sprits of ancestors returning home to see descendants at the Obon period in summer.

For people living in this life, even if those are of ancestors, it will be troublesome to have them in spirits with us, so we have to see them off.

That is why a couple of days as Obon are set to welcome and amuse ancestors until seeing off. Bon-Odori Dance was born with the idea to enjoy the last moments together.

Also, in some regions, this Bon-Odori Dance is regarded as a ritual to send back evil spirits, the deceased without relatives, the spirits which missed ceremonial bonfire to go back as well as the ancestors.

Now, let’s get closer to the history of Bon-Odori Dance.

First of all, “Obon events” are formally called as “Urabon-e”.

Urabon-e came from the Sanskrit word “Ullambana”.

According to the legend of “Urabon-gyo (Ullambana Sutra)”, Mokuren, who was a disciple of Buddha, found his mother, who had passed away, was in pain in hungry ghosts’ realm.

When he asked Buddha how he could save his mother, Buddha answered “On July 15th, when practices in rainy season end, hold a memorial service by treating monks”.

After he did as he was taught, Mokuren’s mother was saved from suffering.

The lesson that you should save many other people to save your own ancestors, is the origin of “Urabon-e”.

This Urabon-e is found in a Japanese book, “Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan)” written by Emperor Suiko in 606.

The statement “memorial service by treating on July 15th” is considered to mean Urabon-e.

On the other hand, in the middle of Muromachi period(1336-1575), the word “Bon no Odori” appeared in the book “Kasuga Gonkan nushi Shijinki” in Nara.

It said that it was conducted at Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple during daytime and at Fuku-in Temple at night.

Also, it was said that, at that occasion, dancers were not in ordinary looks but in the unusual and deformed, which actually meant they were disguised.

Even today, in some regions, dancers are disguised, which shows the old style has been preserved.

This Bon-Odori was introduced by Kuya-Shonin in the Heian period(794-1185), and later Ippen-Shonin spread it out.

Ippen-Shonin wandered across the country chanting the name of Buddha, drumming a drum and sounding a gong and expanded “Odori Nenbtsu (Dancing and Chanting the name of Buddha)”.

Later, it got popular among the public to connect with ancestor worship and Urabon-e events, then the basis of Bon-Odori came to be formed to welcome and treat ancestors and to hold memorial service for the deceased.

Locally-featured Bon-Odori

Many of you may have the impressions that Bon-Odori refers to nationally-well-known Awa-Odori and Gunjo-Odori.

Besides those, there are many unique styles of Bon-Odori in Japan.

Here are 3 styles of Bon-Odori worth to know about.

B on-Odori of Nishimonai

Bon-Odori of Nishimonai, Ugo-machi, in Akita is held over 3 days.

Dancers make narrow oval shape surrounding bonfire on the street and dance hiding their faces by Hikosa Zukin (hood) or braided straw hat.

This Hikosa Zukin is a black hood covering the whole face with two holes for eyes.

It is believed that hiding faces have a purpose to blur the boundaries between the deceased and the alive.

As for costumes, people use Kimono in indigo dyed or of Hashinui.

Kimono of Hashinui refers to colorful Kimono made by stitching waste pieces of old cloth together.

There is a rule that the same patterned pieces are used for the edge and sleeves and the arrangement of cloth is symmetrical.

As mentioned, the original Bon-Odori has the meaning of memorial service to the returned ancestors.

Bon-Odori of Nishimonai represents the original ideas of Bon-Odori strongly.

To know more about Nishimonai Bon-Odori, please see the article below although it is written in Japanese.

E isa

In Okinawa, there is a dance called Eisa.

Today, a local Eisa competition is held for Eisa dancers across Okinawa, which is well-known over Japan.

However, originally Eisa is danced to see off the spirits of ancestors safely and to pray for exorcism and health.

Among Okinawa, the most original-preserved style is Eisa of Katsurenheyashiki in Uruma-city.

In this style, dancers are limited to men and women at the age of junior high-school graduation to 25. 2 groups of “Iri (west)” and “Agari (east) are organized among dancers.

Each group has singers called Jiyu-te, male and female dancers, holders of an alcohol pot called Hantu, drummers and caretakers called Nakawachi.

Drummers dancing with barefoot remind you of traditional style of Eisa.

B on-Odori of Tsushima

Bon-Odori which has preserved the traditional style exists in Tsushima-city in Nagasaki, which is an island located between Kyusyu and Korea.

Each district has different style of singing and dancing, which represent its features.
However, there are some common rules among them.

Dancers are limited to men over the age of 16, and some districts allow only the eldest son of a family.

This is said to come from the belief that they promise to protect a family to the returned ancestors at Bon period.

Bon-Odori of Tsushima has the program danced solemnly wearing the same Kimono and the one performing a story of a song wearing props and costumes.

It is said that the latter program was born influenced by Ji-Shibai (amateur Kabuki) performed in the same time of Bon-Odori.

In the time when there were not enough entertainment like television, it must be attractive for the young in those days to enjoy shows easily.


Now, how do you feel about the history and various local styles of Bon-Odori?

Not only the mentioned unique Bon-Odori, but also familiar style of it at your local region, can be declined due to its consuming preparation and practices, or depopulation in countryside.

Tradition is too close for us to miss, and it is the time that it is managed to preserve by hard efforts of the willing.

Why don’t you take this opportunity to make one step to know about local Bon-Odori and festivals?