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Obon, Eisa steeped in Okinawa tradition

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2009-08-27

Summer is a time of festivals in Okinawa, with Eisa at the forefront of every one of them. Of particular importance in Okinawa culture and tradition, and evident at many of the late summer celebrations is Obon, a time of homage to ancestors.

Eisa is a unique dance, the Bon dance, commonly seen during July and August festivals, but often extending even to September events, as the Buddhist Festival of the Souls plays out with the happy celebration of ancestors. Some consider Eisa a sort of Shamanic ritual to aid the spirits of departed ancestors back to the other world after a visit to Okinawa.

It’s a happy time, as evidenced by the colorful costumes and light music. Dancers seemingly bounce as they move, many carrying small drums or larger barrel drums as they whirl around. Along with the drumbeats, Eisa brings plenty of whistles, and cries of “Iya sa sa! Ha iya! Na tiche!” Eisa’s core is in individual neighborhoods, although the dances’ popularity has given rise to massive public festival celebrations.

The root of it all is Obon, though, often called Day of the Dead, a Japanese Buddhist custom that honors the spirits of deceased and departed ancestors. The annual Buddhist custom has become a family reunion of sorts, where family members make the trek home to clean their ancestors’ graves, then prepare or visits by those ancestors to the family home altars. The tradition, also called the Feast of Lanterns, has been commemorated in Japan for more than 500 years, including the unique Bon-Odori dance.

The Obon festival lasts for three days, with the exact start date varying from place to place in Japan. Some parts of the country switched to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era, leaving communities a choice of dates. Based on the solar calendar, August 15th is the most popular date, while others go by the lunar calendar, which recognizes Kyu Bon, the Old Bon, on the 15th day of the seventh month, a date which changes from year to year. Obon carries heavy public recognition, but is not treated as public holiday time.

Bon Odori traces its roots to the story of Mokuren, a disciple of the Buddha, who used supernatural powers to look in on his deceased mother, who he discovered had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. Anxious and concerned, Mokuren visited the Buddha to seek his mother’s release from the realm. Buddha told him to make offerings to many Buddhist monks who’d just finished their summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.

The disciple did as he was told and his mother was set free. Mokuren then began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and all the sacrifices she’d made for him. Mokuren realized how happy he now was, thanked his mother for her kindness, and began dancing with joy. Thus, the legend goes, the start of the Bon Odori, or Bon Dance, as a time when individuals pay homage to their ancestors and their sacrifices.

Obon’s a celebration in the heat of summer, leading participants to wear yukata, or light cotton kimonos. As with all festivals, foods are abundant, as are carnivals with rides and games. Most end with Toro Nagashi, the floating of lanterns down local rivers. The lanterns symbolize the ancestral spirits returning to the world of the dead.

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