Bondancersizing the Night Away

David Thompson


Honpa Hongwanji Mission, home of bondancersize class. 


It’s Wednesday night in the busy social hall of the Honpa Hongwanji Betsuin, the headquarters of Hawai’i’s largest Japanese Buddhist denomination, and Ralston Nagata is denying that he’s the best guy to talk to about bon dance.


Nagata is a singer for Iwakuni Odori Aiko Kai, one of the bon dance clubs that brings musicians and dancers to bon dances across O’ahu during summer’s Obon season, when the spirits of the dead return to Earth to check on the well-being of their kin. Since 1979, he has been on the organizing committee for the Honpa Hongwanji temple’s bon dance, which draws thousands of people and is the largest bon dance in the state. As much as anyone, he is the guy responsible for tonight’s event, a weekly, year-round, part bon dance practice, part exercise class for seniors, called “bondancersize.” 


SEE ALSO: Buddhism in Hawai‘i: Fading Tradition


Still, he says, he’s no expert. A far better person to talk to about bon dance, he insists, is Derrick Iwata, who happens to be sitting right next to him. “I think he practices in the shower,” Ralston says, which causes Derrick to laugh so hard you suspect Ralston might be on to something.


The two men are on the sidelines, watching about 70 bondancersizers move in intricately choreographed circles around the room. Ralston is manning the CD player that’s playing the cheery Japanese folk music driving the action.


SEE ALSO: Hawai‘i Bon Dance 101


“Derrick’s a bon dancer extraordinaire,” Ralston says. “I’m just the one taking care of these discs over here.” 


Derrick, who is 34 years old, is one of the handful of young people in attendance. Most of the crowd is made up of retirees, like Ralston. Some of are in their 80s, and one tiny woman with bright eyes and perfect posture, who stops to greet Ralston and Derrick, is 90. Even so, there are surprisingly few gray heads in the room. “I think a lot of them use hair coloring,” Ralston confides.


“This is an exercise class for seniors, but it’s also a way for people to remember the dances,” says Derrick, who is an education specialist for the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. “And it’s a way for new people to get their feet wet and see what bon dancing is all about.”


One thing that bon dancing is all about today is change. With Hawai‘i’s Japanese Buddhist population in decline and temples gradually closing, the number of bon dances is falling, too. In the summer 1982, there were 70 bon dances held on O‘ahu. Twenty years later, in 2012, there were just 37. The dwindling number of dances has been accompanied by their on-going secularization.


“Originally, because it had its background in Buddhism, bon dance was a religious thing,” Derrick says. “But its not just that anymore. Some people go for cultural reasons. They might not be Buddhist themselves, but they still want to get in touch with their Japanese side. And then there are others who just come for the social aspect—something to do with their friends. Maybe they’re not even Japanese, but their friends go, so they just join them. Predominantly, you’ll see Japanese there, but it’s open to everyone and anyone.”


Changing times have brought changes to bon dance music, as well. Some dance leaders, determined to appeal to a younger crowd, choreograph bon dances to non-traditional styles of music. J-pop is big at the moment among certain dance leaders, although the impulse to stay current has been going on for a long time. A Japanese remake of the 1972 American pop song “Beautiful Sunday” has become a bon dance standard, and the electric slide, a country and Western line dance, is a perennial favorite at many temples. But there are limits. When “Macarena” came out in the mid-1990s, it had a brief run in the bon dance world. “Then somebody pointed out that the lyrics were a little risque,” Derrick recalls. “So they said, ‘Oops, better not play that anymore.’”


The dress codes for bon dancers have eased, as well. Women still wear the light summer kimonos known as yukata, and men still wear short hapi coats. But these days, if somebody wants to dance in shorts and a T-shirt, they’re far less likely to get a tap on the shoulder and a polite request to stop until they’re appropriately attired. In Derrick’s mind, that’s a positive development. “The whole purpose of Obon is to enjoy life, to show your ancestors that you’re having fun,” he says. “They don’t care what you’re wearing.”


Bon dancers move in lines arranged into concentric rings. The inner ring is reserved for the dance leaders and others who’ve mastered the choreography. The outer rings are for everyone else. This is how the bondancersizers at the Honpa Hongwanji organize themselves, too.


At the end of the first hour of bondancersize, everybody bursts into applause, the rings of dancers dissolve into each other, and the potluck is on. “OK, break time,” Ralston announces loudly. “Center line eats first. Everybody else eats after me. ... Nah, nah, nah! Kidding!”


After taking time to socialize and sample the many dishes and desserts the dancers have brought to share, the bondancersizing resumes. This time, however, the folk music has been replaced by more up-tempo, Western-influenced songs. 


Chester Kaitoku, one of the dance leaders during the first hour, is now standing on the sidelines. Chester belongs to the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Wahiawā, which, like many of the smaller temples outside of Honolulu, hasn’t fully embraced bon dancing’s departure from the classics.


“I’m a traditionalist,” he says. “I prefer traditional dance. I prefer traditional movement. I can see where some contemporary dances might be appealing to a different audience. But I don’t see it as a focal point. To me, its an aberration.”


If one of the purposes of bon dancing is to perpetuate Japanese culture, then it’s important to stick with traditional Japanese style dance, Chester says. Nonetheless, he recognizes that change is unavoidable.


“You will always have bon dances. Bon dance itself will survive, but in what form, we don’t know,” he says. “One of the principals of Buddhism is the concept of impermanence. Nothing is permanent. Our lives are not permanent. Everything changes eventually, even Obon.”