Finally, let’s step into the venue of Bon Dance.

What kind of events are held in there? What kind of people are the participants, and in what kind of fashion do they wear when they dance?

■ The composition of the program

Bon Dance in Hawaii today is not only dancing, but it is a place where various programs are held collaterally.

Bon events are performed before and after the dance, and at this point, it is rather closer to “Traditional Bon Dance” in Japan. This indicates that it has a strong religious aspect in the events. On the other hand, various performances such as Taiko (drums) which is flourishing in recent years, shows an aspect as a modern event.

Let’s look at the main programs.

● Prior program

From the daytime to sunset, events and performances are held in several Bon Dance venues. Performances that are related to Japanese descents’ culture are frequently held.

Especially, the performance of “Wadaiko (Japanese drums)” is becoming very popular in recent years. This is a new stream of Japanese descents’ culture that started in North America in 1970’s, and it is spreading widely around North America as a folk entertainment that is as popular as Bon Dance. Famous Wadaiko groups and local groups come on stage. This might be the “Yose Daiko” in Japan.

● Bon events (service)

This is a Bon event (Urabon-e) that is hosted by the temples. In the “Schedule “, it is written “service”.

In the Pearl City Hongwanji, “Nii-bon Kuyo” (picture) for the believers was held in the hall of the temple while people made arrangements of the scaffold in the dancing venue. There are temples that hold events such as “Segaki” and “Haka-mairi”

● Sermon (Seppo)

When the Bon Dance is about to start, “Kaikyo-shi” climbs on the scaffold and preaches a sermon in front of the attendance. Unexpectedly, it was performed in a solemn mood, and it was impressive that many of the believers and participants listened to it.

By the way, the Kaikyoshi who preached the sermon in Pearl City Hongwanji appeared like a white person, and after he prayed to Amida Buddha and finished the sermon, he joined the circle of Bon Dance in his clerical robe (picture).

● Dance

At last, it is time to dance.

The believers and groups of folk songs who were waiting for the dance form the circle and the Bon Dance starts. Today, most Bon Dances in Hawaii starts at around 19:00.

The dance is composed of “Modern popular song” which use the prerecorded music such as CD, and “Live music” of traditional type of dance songs such as “Fukushima ondo”, “Iwakuni ondo”, “Yagi bushi”, and they perform these songs alternately. The Bon Dance Group takes charge of the “Live music”, the chorus leader sings songs alive, and people dance to the music of taiko (drums) and fue (flute). People liven up more than popular music which is prerecorded.

If we look at the programs distributed to the people 40 years ago in 1970, we can see that the composition mentioned above was already established at that time (chart).

Chart The Bon Dance Program of Shingon Sect Mission of Hawaii (1970)

(This chart is quoted from) “ハワイ日系人社会点描・1970年(4)written by Kisabu
● Intermission

Sometimes, the performance of taiko (drums) is held in the middle of the Bon Dance so the dancers can rest for a while.

In 2008, Pearl City Hongwanji, a spectacular performance of Okinawan taiko was held and subsequently the participants danced Okinawan traditional and modern dance (picture)

At one time in the Bon Dance in Japan, a small number called “Noh Kyogen” was performed in the intermission, so this tradition is rather old. A person who wears a costume of Chushin-gura can be seen in the picture of an old Bon Dance included in “ハワイ日本人移民史”, and according to Ms. Yukari Nakahara, this might be the performance in the intermission of the Bon Dance (*1).

With an intermission in between the dance, people start to dance again.

Bon Dance ends at around 22:00, 23:00 at the latest. Before the WW 2, it ended later, and some people say that they danced until 2:00 in the night (*2).

● Bon Events (Part 2)

In some places, they hold Bon Events after the Bon Dance.

A typical one is “Toro Nagashi”. The beauty of the fantastic candles that float on the shore is loved across the nationality, and in some places it has become a sightseeing event. In a TV drama “波の盆” (日本テ レビ, 1983) which takes up the first generation of the Japanese immigrants in Maui Island, Toro Nagashi is effectively used together with Bon Dance as an expression of the sorrow of the first generation (*3, *4).

In this way, “Bon Dance as an event” in Hawaii is held at “night” just the same as the Bon Dance in Japan. We are very happy about the fact that among many folk arts, the precious culture of “time” that the Bon Dance barely leaves is inherited in the Bon Dance in Hawaii.

■“The participants” of Bon Dance

We saw the ethnic backgrounds of the Bon Dance in Hawaii before this, but how is the participation to the “place” in each Bon Dances?

The high rate of “Participation”

There are no special capacities or qualifications to participate in the Bon Dance in Hawaii just the same as the Bon Dance in Japan, and anyone can participate in it. The important characteristic of Bon Dance as a folk art, “The high rate of participation” (“loose” in a good sense) was firmly inherited in the Bon Dance in Hawaii.

In this multi-ethnic society Hawaii, the characteristic of “The high rate of participation” of the Bon Dance has in a sense an important meaning that mainland Japan does not have. Bon Dance in Hawaii is a place to demonstrate the Japanese descents’ ethnic culture and at the same time, it is open to other ethnic groups, and it is an open place for exchange where people can experience Japanese descents’ culture.

People who watch the dance, eat snacks, and actually dance.

People “participate” in the dance in their own way.

(August 8, 2008, Pearl City Oahu Island)

“The framework” of the participants

There is a certain “framework” among the people who participate in the Bon Dance, such as the main participants who are the nucleus of the dance, peripheral participants such as ordinary people and passers by. If we roughly classify the people who are in the place of Bon Dance, it will be as follows. (of course this is tentative, and practically it overlaps.)

Chart   The types of participants in a Bon Dance.

Type Contents Notes
1. Organizer People who sponsor and manage the Bon Dance. People of the Japanese descents’ community in Choba and parishioner. For the temple’s side, the “Kaikyoshi” participates.
2. Cast People who take part in the dance, songs, music, performance of the Bon Dance. Of course, the “organizer”  becomes an eager cast (dancer).
Dancer People who join the dancing circle and dance. *The main lineup are believers, and people of the various Japanese descent’s communities.


*In the point of “dance”, there are masters and members of the folk song club who will be in charge of training, and also members of the Bon Dance Club (cf. below) who will be in charge of the traditional Bon Dance. There are also core fans who participate in the Bon Dances in various places during the season.


*The property and the ethnicity of the ordinary (peripheral) participants are diverse. Tourists also participate in the Bon Dance besides people of the neighbor.

Accompanist The people who will be in charge of the songs and musical accompaniments in the “traditional Bon Dance” People of the Bon Dance Club such as  “Fukushima Bon Dance Club”, “Iwakuni Ondo Aikokai”, “Eisah Shin-yukai”
Performer People who appear in the performances such as Wadaiko People of each performance groups.
3. Gallery People who enjoy the dance around the venue without joining the dancing circle. The casts take a rest at times, and join the gallery.


Dress, fashion


Next, let’s look at the dress and fashion of the people who participate in the Bon Dance in Hawaii, especially that of the dancers.


In the Bon Dance in Hawaii, there are no dress codes in the strict sense of the word, just like there is no special capacity to take part in it. However, it is “recommended” to wear yukata or happi, and actually many people seem to be wearing those clothes. The fact that we can watch blond girls wearing yukata and local boys wearing happi dance is certainly the real pleasure of the “Bon Dance which crossed the ocean”.




The design of happi is rich in its variety.

(August 9, 2008, outskirts of Hilo, Hawaii Island)




In the point of “Yukata”, there are people who wear order made uniform yukata or happi according to each of the various groups such as Bon Dance groups and believers’ groups.


The interesting thing is that sometimes there are people (mainly elderly people) who wear hand made yukata or happi woven by “Tenugui (hand towel)” (picture). In many cases the organizer prepares an original Tenugui for the Bon Dance, so it seems that it was popular to sew the Tenugui together and weave a yukata as a memory of participating in the Bon Dance every year.


This could be a notable tradition as a traditional item that weaves the memory of Bon Dance, and also a “Bon Dance Culture” original to Hawaii.


The “dress code” of  Bon Dance


The dress of Bon Dance in Hawaii is diverse as we mentioned above, if we look carefully. However, people seem to be aware of the Japanese appearance as a “dress code” suitable for the venue of Bon Dance.


According to the investigation by Mr.Ueda Kisaburo, the clothes of the participants of Bon Dance before the WW 2 was diverse, and people wore yukata, undershirts, and pants as a dress, and on their feet they wore geta, zori, and even barefoot. After the WW 2, when the Bon Dance resumed, yukata, undershirts, pants, muumuu was jumbled together, and as that looked awkward, people decided to wear yukata from around 1955 (*7).


According to Mr. Hirochika Nakamaki, he states that, in the Bon Dance in Hawaii in 1970s, people said, “We cannot join the dancing circle if we don’t wear yukata or happi”, “so “people who watch the dance” and “people who actually dance” were completely separated and the mood of a harmonious whole was not produced.” (*8) However, the Bon Dance in the 21st century that we watched was rather loose in the respect of dresses that people wear.




Yukata was popular among every ethnic group.

(August 8, 2008, Pearl City, Oahu Island)


■  Torimono (Accessories) and props


Tenugui (hand towel)


“Tenugui” is a traditional item for Bon Dance in Hawaii that is actively utilized even more than that in Japan.


Tenugui is a popular item of Bon Dance which was originally used as a mask in the traditional Bon Dance in Japan. However, it is rarely seen in the traditional Bon Dance in Japan after the WW 2.


It has an aspect as a “prize for participation” and even ordinary participants can buy them by paying a small amount of money at the Choba.


There is an original Tenugui for each Bon Dance, and they order a new design for each year to Japan and prepare for the Bon Dance. It is a nice commemoration of participating in the Bon Dance, and we felt that the local people cherish it more than the people in Japan do.




“The Tenugui” that we bought in Hilo Higashi Hongwanji.




On the other hand, the symbolic item that originates in Hawaii would be the “lei” well known in hula dance. There are various types of lei such as, flowers, leaves, nuts, and shells. Dancers wearing lei as a necklace or putting lei on the head as a crown while wearing yukata or kimono are very typical to Bon Dance in Hawaii.




With a pretty lei on the head

(August 8, 2008, Pearl City, Oahu Island.)


Further, in particular dance songs, there were people who danced with two “kobata (small flags)” in their hands, and there were people who wore these kobatas in their belts. Before the WW 2, they say that there were times when the second generation of Japanese descendents danced with Japanese and American flags in their hands


*1,*2 Please refer to background material 2.

*3 Please refer to background material 3.

*4 “波の盆 (Nami no Bon)” tie-up production of Nippon Television Network and TVMAN Union, 1983. Director: Akio Jissoji/ Screenplay: So Kuramoto/ Music: Toru Takemitsu/ Leading Performer: Ryu Chishu. It has received an award in the “Media Arts Festival” held by the Agency of Cultural Affairs of Japan. Now, it is a DVD movie.

*5 Please refer to background material 4.

*6 Please refer to background material 2.

*6 Please refer to background material 1

*7 Please refer to background material 1.

*8 Please refer to background material 3.


<<Background Materials>>


1.“ハワイ日系人社会点描・1970年(4)written by Ueda Kisaburo included in 太平洋学会誌第91号 2002

  1. ハワイ日系人のボン・ダンスの変遷” written by Yukari Nakahara (included in “民俗音楽の課題と方法” written and edited by Nobuo Mizuno and published by 世界思想社, 2002)

3.“新世界の日本宗教” written by Hirochika Nakamaki and published by Heibonsha, 1986.

  1. Van Zile, Judy. The Japanese Bon Dance in Hawaii, Honolulu: Press Pacifica 1982

5.”ハワイとフラの歴史物語” written by Yujin Yaguchi and pubulished by イカロス出版株式会社, 2005.