Featured Image: 2017 Seattle Bon Odori (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

Seattle Bon Odori Will Be Virtual Again This Year, but Still Beautifully Resilient

by Sharon Ho Chang


Seattle’s 89th Bon Odori celebration will take place online again this year. This will be the second virtual celebration, last year’s being the first virtual Seattle Bon Odori ever. 

Though COVID restrictions were lifted in Washington at the end of June, Seattle Bon Odori needed to decide about this year’s program back in February, said Ron Hamakawa, chairperson of Seattle Bon Odori for the last 15 years. 

“There was still a lot of uncertainty about what the state would look like, what the county and city would look like in terms of fully reopening when we needed to make the decision of go or no-go, right? And so we chose the conservative path and said, ‘you know, we are really going to think about the community and not be a super-spreader event. We are going to keep the community safe,’” Hamakawa said.

While the community is disappointed, everyone understands, said Hamakawa. And if last year’s wonderful 2020 Bon Odori virtual celebration, created by Alex Sakamoto and Connor McKinney, is any indication of what’s to come, 2021’s virtual festival will also be beautifully resilient despite the pandemic challenges.

Obon (or Bon) お盆 is an annual Japanese Buddhist festival to honor the spirits of ancestors. It is a tradition that has been celebrated in Japan for over 500 years and kept alive in the U.S. by Japanese Americans since at least the early 1900s, even through the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Seattle Bon Odori will celebrate their 90th anniversary next year when they hope to return to hosting a big, in-person festival.

2017 Seattle Bon Odori (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

Historically, around 3,000 people attend Seattle Bon Odori in person. Sister temples White River Buddhist Church in Auburn and Tacoma Buddhist Temple in Tacoma also celebrate Bon Odori in the greater Puget Sound area.

“Obon is a time where we remember and really express our gratitude to those who came before us,” said Hamakawa. “So traditionally it’s usually the reference to thinking about and remembering our families. But really, in the context of kind of a greater Buddhist philosophy, we live in this world of interconnectedness. And so you may (or may not) have had somebody … they may not be a blood relative, but they had a significant impact on who you ended up being.”

Hamakawa grew up in Hawai‘i going to Obon Odori with his grandmother. “She loved Obon Odori and we would do all of these different temples around the Big Island, like pretty much every weekend, beginning in late June through August. She unfortunately died when I was still pretty young. I think I was like seven or eight when she passed away. But you know, it is for me this very, very specific, very clear memory of her.”

2017 Seattle Bon Odori (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

Because Bon Odori takes place in the summer, attendees traditionally wear light cotton kimonos called yukata. Dance is central to the celebration. Obon Odori お盆おどり, meaning “Bon dance,” refers to a range of fairly simple dances performed at the festival, easy enough that most people can join in. Dance practice usually occurs just beforehand so attendees can rehearse and/or learn the movements.

For 2021, Seattle Bon Odori will be dropping a dance instruction video prior to the event for at-home practice. The video will include one new dance. “You get to see the dances and then you can participate at home,” said Hamakawa.

This year’s logo is an ambiguous image — an illustration that can look like both a dancer and an ox to represent 2021 Obon taking place during the Japanese/Chinese zodiac year of the ox. Bon Odori food, merchandise, and cocktails can be pre-ordered now on the event website and will be available for pickup via drive-thru on Saturday, July 17, 12:00–4:00 p.m. 

Festivities begin Saturday at 5:00 p.m. when a pre-filmed 2021 Seattle Bon Odori celebration video will premiere on YouTube for at-home celebration. Like last year, the Bon Odori video will contain a mixture of religious practice, dances, performances, and activities in observance of the Obon custom — the same sort of program that would normally happen in person over the course of two days outside the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple

2017 Seattle Bon Odori (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

Anyone can attend 2021 Seattle Bon Odori and everyone is welcome, said Hamakawa. “Because even though it’s really based in a Buddhist tradition, you know, really everybody has had somebody who has passed away. Everybody has had somebody who they think about and who they’re grateful for. And so, you know, that sentiment of appreciating somebody missing somebody who’s no longer in this world crosses every culture, ethnicity, and faith. It’s not a Buddhist thing.”


Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫 Tiunn Hiáu-lûn is an award-winning Taiwanese American author, photographer, and activist. She is managing editor at the South Seattle Emerald and lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.

📸 Featured Image: 2017 Seattle Bon Odori (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

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