Mary Adamski

View from the Pew
A look inside Hawaii's houses of worship

By Mary Adamski

Saturday, August 11, 2001

Emily Koga, Derrick Iwata and Noelle Ito participated
last month in the customary prayer before the Pearl City
Hongwanji Mission bon dance. Below, Iwata moves to the beat.

Bon voyage

Dances take 20-somethings on a spiritual journey

It's a summertime Saturday night, and Derrick Iwata has gathered a gang of friends to go dancing. But don't look for them at a nightclub or rave scene.

Iwata and friends are on the Obon circuit, among dozens if not hundreds of people who make the rounds as each Buddhist temple takes a turn sponsoring a bon dance during this season of remembering the dead with music and dance.

What's remarkable about Iwata and his pals Greg Nakayama and Gavin Furukawa is that they are 20-somethings. For the usual crowd at the traditional Buddhist observance, "You picture old Japanese ladies ... and little kids -- they bring their grandchildren," Iwata said. "You rarely see school-age people. If you see a guy, you know his girlfriend dragged him.

"It's a social thing," Iwata said. "I like to be with friends. I started taking high school friends along; they didn't know what it was about until I would tell them. Last year was the first time I hit every weekend from June to mid-September.

Iwata moves to the beat.

"There's three ways to look at the bon dances: religious, cultural and social," said Iwata, whose role as tour leader and teacher come naturally. He is a University of Hawaii senior majoring in secondary education with plans to teach Japanese. A volunteer stint at the Japanese Cultural Center led to his current job there, conducting tours of elementary school classes and coordinating volunteers.

And he has been going to bon dances since small-kid times when his mother, Lois Iwata, dragged him along to the Waipahu Soto Mission. Now, he said, he is teaching her different dance styles. "There are five different dance styles: country Hongwanji, Soto, Okinawan and Bando and Yamada Dance Troupe," he said. "There's different choreography for each one. There are dance clubs that assume the planning for some temples' events, provide the drummers and musicians and fill the ranks of the crowd with their own dancers."

He added: "Last year, a lot of students from Japan were here to do research on Obon. In Japan the season is only one week. They said, 'You people in Hawaii are crazy.'"

In Hawaii the season is stretched out to give each temple a chance to raise funds -- and in recognition of the fervor of generations of bon followers before Iwata.

The dances, with styled steps and moves, remind a watcher of line dancing. Iwata's favorites include "Bokyo Hole Hole Bushi," which tells about plantation life and "how it was not what the immigrants dreamed about." Another is a new song, "Natsu Ureshii Ne," which veteran dance teacher Betty DelaCuesta choreographed two years ago as a memorial after her daughter died.

Iwata said he and his friends have to work out adaptations of their own because virtually all the sensei today are elderly women. "We keep asking ourselves, What is the masculine version of this move? Some are way too feminine; it looks weird for a guy to do."

He said: "I consider myself a Buddhist. If I were going to a temple, it would be Hongwanji. As the first son, I have the responsibility to carry on." But, he said, most yonsei, fourth-generation Japanese Americans, were not raised to practice the belief system, which the first generation brought.

In a recent dance lineup, he counted a dozen people connected to him: "My mother and aunties were there. My friend Gavin brings his grandma and three aunts. We had a few friends along." It led him to order a bunch of matching happi coats for everyone in the gang, which, he hopes, will arrive before the last dance.


Mary Adamski covers religion for the Star-Bulletin.
Email her at

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