A Time of Thanksgiving for Island Buddhists

Courtesy Photo

Japanese dances, called bon-odori, are an integral part of the Buddhist Obon festival taking place this weekend.

In the linoleum-floored social hall of the temple, a small crowd has gathered for a dance lesson before next week’s Obon festival.

Most of the various folk dances they practice are generations old, telling stories of Japanese villages: the fisherman, the rice harvester, the baseball player. The Japanese call these dances bon-odori, which translates as “joyous dance.” They’re the colorful highlight of this two-day Buddhist holiday, taking place this weekend at the Buddhist Temple of Alameda.

At the dance lesson, there are inevitably those who don’t know all the dances, or are too young to make them look easy. Most of the people here, though, know the dances well. They push through the movements automatically, with the same familiarity as a storyteller threading a yarn that’s been passed down from one generation to the next.

Everyone’s favorite seems to be the Tankó Bushi, the “Coal Miner’s Song.” The dancers step forward and thrust both hands as if shoveling coal, then toss the armful over their shoulder with the next step. When the song finishes, the dancers clap and chatter joyfully.

“It’s a good old drinking song,” explains Shigeki Sugiyama, the minister’s assistant. “This is the dance that American tourists know by the time they return from Japan.”

The holiday’s popularity extends beyond its religious grounding. According to Sugiyama, travel agents in Japan sometimes tell foreign tourists not to bother coming during the Obon festival, as the nation’s airports are zoos that weekend, with flocks of people making pilgrimages home for the festivities.

Here in Alameda, another island unto itself, the crowds are not quite so intense. Still, the Buddhist Temple is host to a gathering that sometimes numbers in the hundreds. The temple yard becomes alight with chochin — paper lanterns that serve as beacons to welcome ancestral spirits — while people wearing festive kimonos dance the bon-odori around the garden.

Obon is a Buddhist time of thanksgiving, a celebration of the marriage between the past and the present, when Buddhists remember the dead and celebrate the things their ancestors’ lives made possible.

“Obon is meant to be a time of giving thanks for and celebrating the benefits we’ve received from our predecessors,” Sugiyama said.

This year, the Alameda temple is celebrating its 90th anniversary as an autonomous organization. The beginnings of the temple, however, reach further back than that. If they were celebrating the anniversary of the Buddhist congregation in Alameda, this would be the 100th year since Rev. Mokujo Fujii, then resident minister of the Buddhist Church of Oakland, began coming to Alameda in 1906 to preside over funerals and other religious services.

The congregation moved into their present site in 1914, and became autonomous from the Oakland church in 1916. After that, the temple flourished until the start of World War II in December 1941, when Alameda became considered a “restricted area” by the U.S. Navy. By May 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry were ordered out of the city.

With all of its members gone, the Alameda temple ceased to function. “The temple scattered to the wind,” said the white-haired Sugiyama, whose grandfather immigrated in 1907, and who himself was born in his parents’ house on Buena Vista Avenue.

In September, 1945, the West Coast was reopened to Japanese-Americans, and the Temple was reactivated. For the next two years the social hall served as a temporary hostel where returning evacuees could stay until they found housing of their own.

Gradually, more and more former residents of Alameda returned, and the Temple once again began to grow. Now, membership numbers in the hundreds.

This Saturday, even those who still haven’t perfected the finer points of the Tankó Bushi can, if they muster the nerve, join in dance around the decades-old temple yard in remembrance of their ancestors, or, merely for fun.

The festival will take place this Saturday, July 29, beginning with a food bazaar featuring traditional Japanese dishes. Food will be served at 4 p.m., before the dancing begins at 7. The public is welcome to join. The kangiye (thanksgiving) service, also open to the public, will be held Sunday, beginning at 10 a.m.

The Buddhist Temple of Alameda is located at 2325 Pacific Ave. For more information on the Obon festivities, contact Shigeki “Jim” Sugiyama at 222-4251, or by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Contact Dave Mertzig at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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