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21 July, 2006
Obon the Jersey way
The scene was surreal: I was part of a bon odori dance in the middle of the countryside, with a couple of hundred spectators – mostly local Caucasian farm families, along with some Hispanic and African American families – ringing the roped-off dance area. Beyond the spectators, who were splayed out on lawn chairs and picnic blankets, were dozens of cars and trucks, a midsummer tailgate party all gathered for this annual celebration of Japanese culture.
Bon odori, or obon, is the annual Japanese festival that honors ancestors with traditional dances; they’re still a part of many Japanese American communities – even tiny JA communities like I imagine exists in a place like this.
As tinny, decades-old Japanese music blared over the sound system, the dancers, including kimono-clad Japanese women who knew the moves and everyone else, who tried to mimic their moves, circled rhythmically. I stared at the experienced older ladies and tried to keep up on a couple of dances, and then was happy to hear the familiar melody of the one obon dance I know, “Tanko Bushi.”
I quickly showed the African American women in front of me the moves. The dance is about shoveling coal, I explained. Dig your shovel down to the right, and throw the coal over the opposite shoulder. Then to the left and over the right shoulder. Wipe the sweat off your brows, flick your hands ahead of you, do this wave kind of move to either side, then clap your hands twice. There. Simple pattern.
Of course, I managed to mess up this simple pattern before the song ended, and I practically fell down laughing at my own lack of coordination.
It didn’t help that it was hot and incredibly humid. My clothes hung limp on my body. Even though obon, or bon odori, dances don’t seem like they’d be much of a workout, they are. And in the humidity, which felt like walking through the deep end of a warm swimming pool to someone like me, who recently came from arid Colorado, I was sweating like the proverbial stuck pig.
“Humid? Naw… this ain’t so bad. Wait ‘til it gets really humid,” one bystander smirked at me.
This is summer in New Jersey. Seabrook, New Jersey, that is.
If the name sounds familiar at all, it’s because Seabrook and Japanese Americans go way back.
During the wartime internment years, because farms across the Midwest and East needed workers to replace the men who had gone off to fight, some Japanese Americans were given permission to come to New Jersey to work at Seabrook Farms, one of the largest frozen-food suppliers in the country, and the namesake of the town, which is in southern New Jersey, south of Atlantic City and Philadelphia.
The first JAs to work at Seabrook Farms arrived in 1943; after the war, the company made a concerted effort to get JA families to move to southern New Jersey and replace the German workforce that had returned to Europe. Over 2300 Japanese Americans arrived, and the company built segregated housing – ironically evoking the internment camps the families had just left behind.
But here the Japanese Americans were paid for their 12-hour days, at 35 cents to 50 cents an hour, with 1 day off every 2 weeks. It was a living.
The Seabrook family, which owned the company, also built a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple for the new workers. The Bon Odori was first held at Seabrook in 1945, and it’s been held every year since. The current Buddhist Temple was built in 1969, and is at one end of the field where the dances take place.
Over the decades many of the JAs have left the area, but there's still enough of a community to support the temple, a taiko group and of course, the annual Bon Odori.
I came down to the temple with a busload from the New York Buddhist Church, on Manhattan’s upper west side. The bus was filled with members of the New York temple, as well as members of the Japanese American Citizens League and musicians from Soh Daiko, a taiko drum group based at the Buddhist church and the first taiko group on the east coast, in 1979.
The bus got caught in traffic leaving New York and a two-hour drive turned into almost a four-hour trek to Seabrook, with a brief stop at a wonderful market, the Sorbello Girls Farm Market. We got to the temple too late to grab a bite from the food booth, but the church’s funjinkai ladies had cooked chow mein and side dishes and tons of rice for the volunteers and taiko drummers, we we grabbed a bite before heading out to the field.
First I watched the rehearsed numbers by the dancers in traditional yukata, or light summer kimono (the light cotton seemed waaay too hot for me), then joined in the group dances. The Bon Odori ended with performances by three taiko groups: Hoh Daiko from the Seabrook area, Nen Daiko from the Washington, DC area, and New York's Soh Daiko.
The concert was terrific – all three were fun and professional, but Soh Daiko shined with its almost three decades of experience. After their performance, they jammed with the other two groups in a drumathon that drew standing ovations from the crowds.
It was worth the drive to the middle of New Jersey’s farm country, a far cry from the concrete and steel of Manhattan and the urban landscape of Jersey City, where I live.
I hope to take the ride again next year. I just hope it’s not as humid!
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