THROUGH THE FIRE: The Power of Obon

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By SHARON YAMATO

(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on August 25, 2010.)

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It’s been great to see J-town bustling with Nisei Week activity during the past few weeks. Tanabatas, booths selling Asian goodies, performers on stage in the Museum courtyard, and familiar faces milling around. It’s enough to make one want to drive from the Valley or the Westside.

Maybe it’s the excitement in the air that has made me feel nostalgic for the Little Tokyo of my Sansei youth—the days when my parents operated an employment agency on the corner of First and San Pedro. It must have been in the late 50s when I would spend my summers working in their office, walking the streets to do errands, and eating lunch everyday at all my mother’s favorite spots. There were the hot turkey sandwiches with gravy (my favorite) at Kyodo Grill, chili tamales at Sue’s stand in the building, some Japanese dish at Sugar Bowl, or pakkai at the Far East Café. And on hot summer days, there was nothing more quenching than a superfine ice sno-cone at Mikawaya. Life didn’t get much better than this.

San Fernando Valley Japanese Meiji Club Ondo Dancers, 2010 Nisei Week Parade. (Photo by Christy Ishimine)

I’ve heard it said that it’s difficult to get younger people (i.e., used to be Sansei, now Yonsei, Gosei and hapa) to go to Little Tokyo, much less to develop an interest in anything Japanese. This year, Nisei Week and the obon season made me see things differently. It started when I went to the Higashi Hongwanji obon this year and ran into young and old alike eating moon pie dangos, “Twilight” sno-cones, and playing taiko. I was taken back to a community and time I had forgotten, but found it there with a new, younger twist.

Photographers David Osako and Christy Ishimine are perfect examples of the exuberance for Japanese American culture some say is slowly dwindling. Not so for these two passionate obon lovers. It started in 2008 when David, who was a student at Maryknoll in the late 60s, saw an ad for a local Bon Odori and decided to check it out. While there, he heard Japanese music that he hadn’t heard for decades. All the years melted away, and he was transported back to his past, remembering that he once resisted the strange music his mother used to play. Suddenly, he was hooked. Ultimately, he left a career he hated as a lawyer to spend all his time with photography as he set out to capture the essence and the spirit of obon.

About the same time, he met Christy Ishimine, an architect who shared his newfound love for Little Tokyo and obon. Christy has fond memories of going to Little Tokyo with her dad, whose father-in-law ran the Palm Café on East First Street straight out of Heart Mountain, giving people free meals when they arrived home. As a child, Christy vividly remembers taking the bus with her dad to Little Tokyo to buy groceries and having to lug big sacks of rice and other Japanese food back home to Torrance. Today, her dad is a member of the “Obon Jivers,” celebrity obon dancers who happily and lovingly practice obon decked out in Elvis wigs. Christy and her son now make it a point to go to every obon they can. Last year, like David, she also left a regular job to focus on her interest in photography as they joined forces to create two books as well as photographs that now hang throughout Little Tokyo. Last weekend, their work was featured at the Hold Up Art Gallery on Second Street, but if you missed it, you can still catch their photos hanging at the Little Tokyo Koban. Their books are available at the Japanese American National Museum and Kinokuniya Bookstore.

The book “Mixed Arare” describes their collaboration and how they view what they do. David and Christy want us to see growing up Japanese American from all different angles and points of view. The book is a celebration of family gatherings, Nihonmachis, and of course, obon. One favorite is a picture of an odori dancer facing the camera while all the other dancers look the opposite direction. The caption: “It’s okay to be different.”

Their other book, “L.A. Odori” is all about the photographs, for which they are expert. David especially likes capturing the colorful kimonos, the festive environment, and the people. As an architect, Christy makes sure the buildings aren’t forgotten.

Most of all, David and Christy are hardcore obon lovers. David even takes lessons himself from San Fernando Valley sensei Masako Rodriguez, while Christy practices on her own. In fact, they both struggle with whether to take pictures or just go out and dance. They celebrate the sense of community that thrives at the obon festivals. As Christy says, “It’s like one big family even though you are with a bunch of strangers.” She sees dancing as a kind of meditation and a way to honor her grandparents, aunts and uncles, and all the people who are gone. It’s not just cultural but spiritual, beautiful, but most of all fun. You could be dancing next to a Buddhist priest or a five year old, one thing is for sure: everyone is smiling.

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Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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