SB 4

At this time of year, if I’m walking around town in the evening, I’ll often hear rousing taiko drums and joyful traditional music. Believe it or not, this isn’t an impromptu concert put on by the revelers that always greet my arrival wherever I go, but the sound of a bon dance, (“bon odori” in Japanese).

Part of the summer Obon festivities, bon dances have been held for centuries, and have a spiritual significance in some localities. Even where they’re held for purely festive reasons, they’re a way of fostering a sense of community and preserving cultural heritage.

But while to most Japanese people the sound of bon odori music brings a welcome and warm rush of nostalgic summer memories, one neighborhood in Japan performs its dance with no music at all, and it’s not because all of the dancers have innately perfect rhythm.

Different bon odori songs have different dance routines, which dancers perform in unison. Regardless of the particular version, though, the moves aren’t particularly complex or physically taxing. As a matter of fact, one reason bon dances helped promote togetherness among neighbors is because they’re so simple that just about anyone, young or old, can join in. The dancers move in a leisurely circle around a raised platform where the musicians perform, and also where experienced dancers model the steps and arm movements of the song being played so that even first-timers can participate.

Even if you’re not keen to dance, the music is somehow at once both relaxing and invigorating, just like the nighttime breezes that often blow through summer festivals.

▼ This year’s bon odori in Yokohama’s Minato Mirai district (dance starts at 0:07)

Bon odori have been performed for centuries, but even in Japan, traditions tend to lose support over time. While almost every community still holds a bon dance, things aren’t like the old days, when everyone in town would venture out to attend. In these modern times, some people would rather stay home, and to certain non-bon dancers, that music is just noise.

In light of that, here’s what the bon dance looks like in Otamachi, a neighborhood of Tokai City in Aichi Prefecture.

No, that’s not a video of newcomers practicing or warming up before the official start of the dance. That’s how Otamachi’s actual bon dance looks, as part of a measure to not offend those living nearby who’d rather not hear the accompanying music.

So how does everyone coordinate their steps? By wearing a portable radio and headphones, then tuning into an FM frequency which broadcasts the song to be danced to. But while this is a clever use of technology, not everyone is convinced it’s a suitable substitute for a proper bon dance. Among the dissenting opinions that have been voiced are:

“Is this some sort of cult thing?”
“Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, Tokai City’s famous zombie dance.”

Still, event chairman Atsushi Morioka thinks a music-less bon odori is the way to go. While Otamachi’s first such dance was held in 2009 and attracted only 40 or so participants over the course of its two nights, attendance has since grown to a total of roughly 400. The 53-year-old Morioka even touts a number of unexpected advantages to this unorthodox format. Referring to the 100-meter (328-foot) radius of the broadcast, he boasts “If they tune in to the frequency even [small groups or] people by themselves who aren’t at the bon odori site itself can dance,” although it seems one could achieve the same effect by simply putting on a CD of bon dance music.

Morioka makes a somewhat better point when he mentions that the system would also allow bon dances to carry on later into the night, as they did in ages past before the modern economy put everyone on something closer to a 9 to 5 schedule. Personally, though, I can’t help feeling that having to stick earphones in your ears to dance, pull them out to talk with your fellow dancers between songs, then put them back in when the next number starts would seriously preclude a lot of the communication that helps form bonds between family, friends, and neighbors at bon odori.

Nonetheless, Morioka asserts that “The possibilities of silent boon odori are limitless,” and I have to admit that at the very least, the format would be a boon for air drummers, as seen in the video of the Otamachi gathering. For everyone else, though, I’m not entirely sold.

Source: Sankei News via Hachima Kiko
Top image: YouTube/Jump Up Ota