The Bon Festival Dance (盆踊り)
The Bon festival dance is an event enjoyed in groups at night during the season of Bon, the Buddhist festival for the dead held around the fifteenth of August (or July in some regions).
The general style of the Bon festival dance is that a tower is set up at the center of an open space; a caller atop the tower sings a folk song for a dance, and participants dance to the song as they circle the tower. The Bon festival dance is said to have originated from nenbutsu-odori (a dance with an invocation to the Buddha).
In haiku, or Japanese seventeen-syllable poetry, the Bon festival dance is used as kigo (a seasonal word) of summer. The Bon festival dance is one of the major events during the summer vacation period. The dance was once an all-night event, but nowadays it is rarely held through to the late-night hours.
In most cases, a folk song for the dance is used as the accompaniment in the Bon festival dance. In some areas, the folk song for the dance is performed with a live drum, a live shamisen (three-string Japanese banjo) and a live caller, just as it was in the past. Occasionally, instead of a shamisen, an electric bass or a rhythm box is used as an instrument. Recently, callers and hayashikata (people performing the accompaniment with traditional Japanese instruments) have decreased in number, so in many cases the playback of a folk song for a dance recorded beforehand serves as a substitute. Each local community has a folk song for a dance, as well as its own dance style. In some areas from the Kanto region to the Kinki region, the Bon festival dance is also called 'higan odori' (the dance of autumnal equinoctial week), which is named after the season in which the festival is held. If the festival is held during the period of about ten days leading up to higan (the autumnal equinoctial week), the dance is called 'higan odori,' and if the festival is held at another time it's called a summer festival or an autumn festival in most cases. A popular belief is that the name 'higan odori' hadn't been used until someone jokingly called the festival 'higan odori' for its season. The name is said to have originated in Hokusetsu, Osaka, or in the western part of Tokyo Metropolis, but its exact birthplace is unknown.
Historically, the Bon festival dance has functioned as an entertainment and a way to strengthen people's bonds in the village community. Accordingly, there are many local communities throughout Japan that have their own folk songs for a dance featuring their particular localities; it's not at all rare for a municipality, or a chamber of commerce and industry, to compose an original local folk song for the dance. Before the Meiji period, the Bon festival dance related to other customs, such as utagaki (a religious event of ancient times, at which people exchanged forms of poetic verses such as waka, a form of Japanese poem consisting of 32 syllables).
The songs exemplified below aren't limited to folk songs but also include pop tunes. Please refer to "The list of songs in the style of a folk song."
Tokyo Ondo (A Folk Song of Tokyo for a Dance)
Dai Tokyo Ondo (A Folk Song of Big Tokyo for a Dance)
Kawachi Ondo (A Folk Song of Kawachi for a Dance): In Osaka Prefecture
Goshu Ondo (A Folk Song of Goshu for a Dance): This song is enjoyed throughout the Kansai area, including Shiga Prefecture, but it's said to have originated in Higashi-Omi City.
Hokkai Bon Uta (A Folk Song of Hokkaido for the Bon Festival Dance): In Hokkaido Prefecture
Kodomo Bon Odori Uta (A Children's Folk Song of Hokkaido for the Bon Festival Dance): In Hokkaido Prefecture
Zundoko Bushi (A Folk Tune Interjected as a Refrain of Zundoko)
Soran Bushi (A Folk Tune Interjected as a Refrain of Soran)
Nanyadoyara (A Folk Tune Interjected as a Refrain of Nanyadoyara): This tune is also called Nanyatoyara, and it's enjoyed in the northern part of Iwate Prefecture, the southern part of Aomori Prefecture and the Kazuno district of Akita Prefecture.
Gujo Bushi (A Folk Tune of Gujo): In Gifu Prefecture
Nagoya Bayashi (A Folk Song of Nagoya for the Bon Festival Dance): In Aichi Prefecture
Dai Nagoya Ondo (A Folk Song of Big Nagoya for a Dance): In Aichi Prefecture
Dekansho Bushi (A Folk Tune Interjected as a Refrain of Dekansho): In Sasayama City, Hyogo Prefecture
The Bon festival dance abroad
Similar events are held in the communities of Japanese immigrants, such as those of Hawaii and California. The events are similarly called 'Bon dances,' but the repertoire of the dances and songs is replaced with those of the respective communities.
In most cases, a drummer and a caller (both on a tower) and dancers conventionally wear yukata (a Japanese summer kimono), but it's okay for general participants to wear ordinary clothes. If dancers belong to the same group, in most cases they'll wear matching yukata. In some cases, women put their uchiwa (a round fan) between the back of the yukata and the obi (broad sash around the waist). Moreover, in some cases the men dance with hachimaki (headbands) on their heads and inro (small decorative cases) suspended from their waists.
In some regions, a mask of a fox or something is worn, while in other regions thick makeup (like stage makeup) and gorgeous clothing are worn.
Origin of a Bon festival dance
The Bon festival dance was originally a Buddhist event. In the Heian period, the virtuous Buddhist priest Kuya began nenbutsu-odori (a dance with an invocation to the Buddha). Combined with Urabon (the formal name of Bon), this seems to have been regarded as the event for greeting the spirits of--and paying homage to--the dead. It is said that people started dancing to the drumbeat at the beginning of the Muromachi period.
Even today, there are local areas where the Bon festival dance is held as an act of homage to those who have died since the last Bon.
People dance to the drumbeat and the lyrics, which are called 'kudoki.'
Besides serving the dance, kudoki also shows us the cultural tradition of the local community. In some areas, the festival participants dance going around each of the houses in which someone has died since the last Bon.
The Bon festival dance was once held on July 15, based on the lunar calendar. Thus the dance was always done under a full moon.