Rod Ohira's People
Bon-dance legend wears happi coat, happy face
By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer
Twice a week from early June through mid-September, 72-year-old retired house painter Richard Kotaka of Pearl City puts on his happi coat and becomes a superstar.
Jeff Widener The Honolulu Advertiser
People attend bon dances just to watch superstar Richard Kotaka, with his signature happi coat and happy face. His grandson, Lucas, 8, background right, is a drummer.
Jeff Widener The Honolulu Advertiser
There may be better individual dancers in the circle around the yagura (central tower), but no one is having more fun than Kotaka, who has been dancing for 52 years.
Watching him makes you want to dance, says Noreen Kishi, who attends bon dances regularly with her husband, Michael.
"He's to bon dancing what John Travolta was to disco dancing," Kishi said of Kotaka. "If you watch the dancers, he's the only one really smiling. Everybody else is so serious. He just makes it look enjoyable and that gets the audience excited."
Kotaka is a showman, who is comfortable dancing traditional Fukushima as well as modern "electric slide." (Yes, at some bon dances, they even dance to "Elvira.")
"Not everyone knows his name but they all know who he is," said 72-year-old Tsuneo Watanabe, one of the all-time great baseball players from Waipahu who has been involved with Waipahu Soto Zen Temple Taiyoji bon dances since he was youngster. "You can tell he puts his heart and soul into his dancing. He does it with so much enthusiasm."
At 5 feet 2 1/2 inches tall, Kotaka turned to bon dancing after his basketball playing career at Farrington High School ended on the junior-varsity level. While looking for a social activity to fill the void left by basketball, the Palama native attended a bon dance and got hooked. "I didn't know too much about the religious part since my parents were separated and we didn't really have a religion," said Kotaka, the youngest of six children.
Kotaka joined up with the late Mabel Yamada's dance troupe in Mo'ili'ili and learned all the dances. "In the early part, everything was more traditional," Kotaka said. "Like tanko bushi, the coal miner's dance. You have the digging and carrying out movements."
Kosuke Tokita and his wife, Elaine, who attend bon dances "just to watch," said Kotaka is "No. 1."
"Nobody can beat him," Kosuke Tokita said. "I'd rather watch him than go dance. He's the star of bon dances, the champion."
Kotaka is the only member of a Niigata club troupe, which once numbered 13, who still dances.
In bon dancing, individual prefectures in Japan have slightly different rhythm and dancing styles. Fukushima and Okinawa are the most common in Hawai'i. Niigata, meanwhile, has all but disappeared from the bon-dance play list on O'ahu, Kotaka said.
"The steps are the same for most of the dances, but the way you slide your leg is different," Kotaka said. "Hiroshima is a slower dance. Fukushima is a little faster. Niigata is a little livelier than Fukushima.
"Me, I really just go with the flow," he said. "When I come into the line, I just dance easy. Sometimes, I dance a different way just to have fun. If I do something comical, the younger ones see it and it makes them watch and want to try. All I'm trying to do is preserve the dance. I would hate to see it fade away."
Kotaka, who sometimes plays the flute in Hawai'i Matsuri Taiko demonstrations at bon dances, has composed several "songs" to keep the Niigata tradition alive in Hawai'i. "What we call song is an arrangement, not something to sing," Kotaka said.
His enthusiasm has been heightened by the recent interest his grandson has shown in taiko (drum) playing. Lucas Kotaka, 8, is a member of the Hawai'i Matsuri Taiko troupe. "He knows how to hit Niigata (using two smaller drums rather than the big taiko) and dance Niigata," Kotaka said of his grandson.
Bon dancing is a family affair for the Kotakas.
The former Dorothy Hayashi, who met her husband at a 1949 bon dance in Kaka'ako, sews the distinctive two-tone happi coats worn by her husband, son-in-law Wesley Anzai and grandson. The Kotakas' two daughters, Debora Anzai and Wendy Goshert, also are dancers, while son, Richard Jr., and three other grandchildren will dance but not as often.
"What I like best about bon dance is you see a lot of faces, make new friends," Richard Kotaka said. "The town dances somehow seem more competitive, people stay more with their groups. The countryside is different. Wahiawa Soto Mission is one of the most friendliest dances. The people talk to you, make you feel welcome."
Rod Ohira is on vacation. He can be reached after Aug. 27 at firstname.lastname@example.org or 535-8181.