Of all the cultural traditions I’ve latched onto as I’ve aged and become more curious in exploring my identity, obon festivals are perhaps the one that makes me most proud of my Japanese heritage.
Beyond the auntie-sewn trinkets you can purchase at the stalls and the delicious food you can scarf down (those OCBC dango dogs haunt me), it’s the dancing that makes me feel connected to my roots. No obon dance is a dance without a throng of yukata and happi coat-clad people circling a yagura as taiko drummers thump out a beat. As I’ve familiarized myself with the choreographed dances over the years, I’ve also learned more about Japan’s history.
Each region of Japan has its own folk songs and dances. One of the most popular dances is Tanko Bushi, a coal mining song from Kyushu. It’s through performing the movements of the miners, from digging to cart pushing to lantern hanging, that I’m able to educate myself on that region’s history.
So when I first learned Ei Ja Nai Ka, a notoriously high-energy dance that involves not just song and dance, but taiko drumming and chanting from those participating as well, I wondered what region of Japan it came from, only to learn that it was created in 2004 by a Japanese American woman named PJ Hirabayashi.
“When I began piecing the music together, it never entered my mind that this would be for obon,” said Hirabayashi, who is the Artistic Director Emeritus, former Artistic Director, and founding member of San Jose Taiko, a nonprofit organization and one of the premier taiko drumming ensembles in the country. “It was simply going to be for San Jose Taiko’s repertoire.”
Anyone immersed in the world of taiko knows who PJ Hirabayashi is. San Jose Taiko is recognized as the third taiko group to emerge in the United States, the style of which she has influenced deeply. Having performed with the group for more than 40 years, she’s composed music, designed costumes, led public workshops, and much more while also contributing to their local Japantown. Because she’s so involved in the San Jose Japanese American community in California today, it’s surprising to hear that she wasn’t born into it.
“My first memory of obon is going to the festival in West LA while visiting my grandmother, and I remember feeling terribly uncomfortable in the kimono she dressed me in,” Hirabayashi said, laughing. “I did not have that Japanese cultural experience growing up, and there was no one like me at my school in the Bay Area. I remember looking around at obon and it was like, ‘what is this?’”
Hirabayashi first became interested in learning about her cultural identity when she attended college. It was at UC Berkeley that she was able to take ethnic studies in the early 70s, just a couple years after students organized a coalition called the Third World Liberation Front – beginning at San Francisco State University – to establish ethnic studies departments and curriculum. But it was in San Jose Taiko, which she joined after graduating, that she found her home.
“Through taiko, I understood what my Japanese American experience was,” Hirayabashi said. “It provided me with a voice and expression that I never had before. And because of that link, I was also able to become involved with the Buddhist temple and their obon festival, where we’d perform each year.”
Though Ei Ja Nai Ka was first performed at San Jose Obon in 2004, the inspiration came to Hirabayashi a decade earlier in 1994 in the middle of the night – literally. She remembered being woken from her sleep by a pulsating beat that she felt within her.
“I woke up because my body was practically dancing,” she said. “I immediately had a base pattern. I saw a moving drum in my mind, a drum that wasn’t statically placed in position, and I thought, oh my God, this is what is missing from our repertoire.”
Though Ei Ja Nai Ka was first performed at San Jose Obon in 2004, the inspiration came to Hirabayashi a decade earlier in 1994 in the middle of the night – literally.
Not wanting to rush the process, she would spend the next ten years adding layers one by one. After the rhythm patterns came the dance choreography, then in 2001, Hirabayashi asked Kodo taiko veteran Yoko Fujimoto to write the lyrics.
After first being performed by San Jose Taiko at obon, the dance gradually began to trickle into other Buddhist temples in California, being taught and shared among teachers and dancers alike. It soon spread throughout the nation and reached obon festivals in Hawai’i.
Being a distinctly Japanese American dance, Hirabayashi wanted Ei Ja Nai Ka to reflect a classic American story. Through fast-paced movements that mimic fishing, picking, digging, and even wiping sweat from one’s brow, Ei Ja Nai Ka celebrates the hard work of immigrants who came to America to provide a better future for their children.
The phrase “ei ja nai ka,” according to Hirabayashi, has several layers of meaning. The first layer is to be understood as “isn’t it good?”
“The second layer has a bit more depth, like, ‘wow, isn’t this beautiful? Isn’t this a nice day?’” Hirabayashi said. “And then the third level is where you take in everything that is happening and are truly grateful for this day, for this experience. Isn’t it good?”
For Hirabayashi, the dance is an anthem for gratefulness – gratefulness for those who came before you and for the energy that exists around you, especially when you’re in the dance circle. Shared energy in a space like obon is, to her, shared connection and experience.
Through fast-paced movements that mimic fishing, picking, digging, and even wiping sweat from one’s brow, Ei Ja Nai Ka celebrates the hard work of immigrants who came to America to provide a better future for their children.
When you join the dance circle at your first obon festival, it’s natural to feel daunted. There are countless choreographed dances to songs that everyone else seems to know by heart, and with so many spectators watching on the outside, you may feel self-conscious about messing up. But ask any seasoned dancer about the best way to learn the movements, and they’ll all say you must put your ego aside, throw yourself into the circle, and learn from those around you. It’s through absorbing what others are sharing that you can not only learn, but feel like you’re contributing to the dance, too.
“Some of the inspiration for Ei Ja Nai Ka comes from awa odori, which is considered a fool’s dance in Japan,” Hirabayashi said. “You’re a fool if you dance, and you’re a fool if you just sit and watch. So why not get up and dance?”