In Japan, the period between July and August is when people pray for the spirits of their deceased relatives and ancestors to be able to obtain Buddhahood without suffering. It is believed that the spirits of the ancestors revisit their family’s household alters and shrines during the three days that Obon traditionally lasts.
Two nights ago, I join three other friends to attend the 2-day Bon Odori 2017 festival held in the township of Gelang Patah in Johor, Malaysia. “Bon-Odori,” as the name suggests, refers to a dance (odori) held during Obon. The dance is performed all over Japan to receive spirits and send them off again.
The celebration of Bon in Malaysia started as a small affair over 40 years ago, with Japanese expatriates stationed here wanting to immerse their own children into their native culture. It has now morphed into a huge and much-awaited event, attracting crowds by the thousands. Presently, the religious aspect of Bon has been mostly lost, and the dance is held as an event to liven up the summer festival.
In Malaysia, Bon Odori aims to promote and strengthen cultural ties between Malaysia and Japan, as well as showcase to locals a part of Japanese custom that’s been around for the past 500 years. The celebration in Malaysia is believed to be the largest Bon Odori festival in the world, outside of Japan.
The carnival-like atmosphere is made all the more merrier with stalls selling a variety of Japanese food and drinks, lively dance, martial arts and taiko (drums) performances, Japanese karaoke, games and even a lucky draw. This noisy and colourful event also attracts Japanese companies to participate and promote their products.
As Obon occurs in the heat of summer, participants wear colourful yukatas, a traditional Japanese robe, or light cotton kimonos.
Then, there’s also the attire worn by today’s youth, where any style and combination goes…!
The typical Bon Odori dance involves people forming a circle around a high wooden scaffold made especially for the festival called a yagura.
There are many instances where the hand movements are made to coordinate with the lyrics, describing actions like “harvesting the rice” or “scooping the mud”. This makes the dance easy to follow so that everyone can join in and dance round the yagura.