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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Obon for everybody

'Obon,' radio special by Keith Haugen

By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Keith and Carmen Haugen get their bon dance on at Jikoen Hongwanji Mission. Even in Japan, non-Buddhists participate.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Isle entertainer Keith Haugen dances at an obon festival at the Jikoen Hongwanji Mission in Kalihi on Friday evening.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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"Obon," a radio special hosted by Keith Haugen

6-7 p.m. Sunday, KHPR 88.1 Honolulu; KKUA 90.7 Wailuku; KANO 91.1 Hilo

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A part of growing up in Hawai'i is going to summertime bon dances at local Buddhist temples.

Race or religion aside, we enjoy the rhythmic sound of the taiko drums, the scent of broiled teriyaki sticks, the sight of the paper lanterns bobbing out to sea. Many of us, even if we don't know what we're doing, don a yukata or happi coat and join the circle of dancers, imitating the movements and feeling uplifted and included even if we know nothing of what obon means.

Musician and writer Keith Haugen has been one of these. He went to his first bon dances in Japan, as a teenage military photographer in the 1950s. Some years ago, having moved to the Islands, he began to consider the significance of the obon tradition in Hawai'i culture, and wrote a script about it. The idea languished for some time while he worked on other projects, but it remained on his "to do" list.

On Sunday, Hawaii Public Radio will air this script, along with music culled from recordings of bon dance songs Haugen bought 50 years ago, in a special called "Obon."

Haugen, a Minnesotan of Norwegian ancestry who has lived in Hawai'i for 39 years and is married to his musical partner, hula dancer Carmen Sarmiento Haugen of Wailuku, Maui, says the thing that first impressed him when he went to a bon dance in Japan was the inclusiveness.

"Who you are or where you came from doesn't matter. What you look like, or what language you speak, or what ethnic group you relate to makes no difference at all," he said.

His first bon dance was actually on an American military base; the military invited the surrounding community to use the facility for a mass dance. "I was watching this and I thought it was one of the best community relations things I'd ever seen Japanese and Americans together," he said.

In the special, Haugen explains the religious significance of the dances, and he honors that aspect of the event. But he was also impressed with the fact that even non-religious people both in Japan and the Islands participate in obon celebrations and are welcomed.

So Haugen, who rates himself a poor dancer, is not ashamed to put on a kimono and go through the steps of the "Coal Miner's Song (Tanko Bushi)" or "Yosakoi Boshi" (which is a sake-drinking song) because he knows he'll be accepted and, not only that, he'll have fun, as everyone else is doing.

In Buddhist tradition, the bon odori season is a time to pray for the repose of the souls of the beloved ancestors, and to welcome them back for a visit. Family members dedicate wooden banners to relatives who have gone before, and, when it's time for the departed to return to their spiritual homes, lanterns are floated out to sea to represent them in their path back.

But Haugen says these customs have become acculturated in the Islands: People who are not Buddhists have embraced the songs, the dances, the lantern ceremony. Their monetary gifts, or purchases of food at bon dances, help support the temples. Their participation helps keep these customs alive.

Still, many people who participate in these events have no idea what they're doing: what the songs are about, what the festival represents. (In fact, Haugen said, when he was researching the project, he learned that many Japanese nationals don't even understand some of the terms in the songs, many of which date back to the 1800s and are rich in idioms that are no longer used in everyday Japanese speech.)

Haugen's radio special will be enlightening for anyone who has wondered what the popular songs are about or what obon is about.

He will address the instruments used, and will also discuss the difference between boshi and minyo. (Minyo is a generic term for folk songs; boshi is a folk song sung in a particular way characteristic of bon dances.)


AUG. 10-11

Shingon Mission of Hawaii, 7 p.m. Aug. 10-11, 915 Sheridan St. 941-5663.

Aiea Soto Zen Taiheiji, 7 p.m. taiko drums, 7:30 p.m. bon dance, Aug. 10-11, 99-045 Kauhale St., 'Aiea. 488-6794.

Pearl City Hongwanji, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 10-11, 858 Second St., Pearl City. 455-1680.

West Kauai Hanapepe Hongwanji, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 10-11, Hanapepe, Kaua'i. 808-338-1847.

Kahului Jodo Mission, 8 p.m. Aug. 10-11, Kahului, Maui. 808-871-4911.

Kona Koyasan Daishiji Mission, 7 p.m. Aug. 11, 76-5945 A Mamalahoa Highway, Holualoa, Big Island. 808-324-1741.

Hamakua Jodo Mission, 8 p.m. Aug. 11, Honoka'a, Big Island. 808-323-2993.

Hilo Higashi Hongwanji, 8 p.m. Aug. 11, 216 Moho'uli St., Hilo, Big Island. 808-935-8968.

AUG. 17-18

Jodo Mission of Hawaii, 7 p.m. Aug. 17-18, 1429 Makiki St. 949-3995.

Soto Mission of Hawaii Betsuin, bon dance 7:30 p.m. Aug. 18-19, taiko drum performance 8:30 p.m. Aug. 17 and Okinawan bon dance 8:30 p.m. Aug. 18, 1708 Nu'uanu Ave. 537-9409.

Mililani Hongwanji, taiko drums 7 p.m., bon dance 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17-18, 95-257 Kaloapau St., Mililani. 625-0925.

Kamuela Hongwanji Mission, 8 p.m. Aug. 18, Church Row, Waimea, Big Island. 808-775-7232.

Hakalau Jodo Mission, 8 p.m. Aug. 18, Hakalau, Big Island. 808-966-9777.

AUG. 25

Bon Dance, 4-10 p.m. Aug. 25, Kapahulu Center. 737-1748.

Aiea Hongwanji, 7 p.m. 99-186 Puakala St., 'Aiea. 488-5685.

Kula Shingon Mission, 7:30 p.m. 53 Upper Kula Road, Kula, Maui. 808-878-1833.

Honohina Hongwanji Mission, 8 p.m. Honohina, Big Island. 808-963-6032.

Pahoa Hongwanji Fukyojo, 8 p.m. Pahoa, Big Island. 808-966-9981.


Okinawan Festival, bon dancing during festival, 6-9:30 p.m. Kapi'olani Park. 676-5400.

SEPT. 15

Autumn Okinawan Matsuri, 5 p.m. Hawaii Okinawa Center, 94-587 'Uke'e St., Waipi'o Gentry. 676-5400.

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.