Bright lanterns, soft sizzles, and light laughter all play clearly in my mind. Summer always means obon season. Growing up, I would only attend the GVJCI Matsuri (carnival) and the Gardena Obon. But when I started playing collegiate taiko at UC Irvine, the world of obon opened my eyes to a vibrant and fun space for communities to celebrate, gather, and share cultural traditions and pride. The first obon I clearly remember performing at is San Jose Obon. As the largest obon in North America, it left such a large impression on me. I have continued going back to San Jose Obon almost every year since I have graduated.
Like so many other cultural festivals and events, obons and matsuris across the country are having to adapt to this year’s restrictions on gatherings. Knowing that I would not be able to attend one of my favorite obons this year, I was curious to find out how this large obon would mobilize online. I was able to speak with Matt Ogawa, a San Jose Obon Committee member.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your history with San Jose Obon.
I grew up in NorCal’s South Bay and have always been a part of the community there. In the past I have worked at the pre-school and been a YBA (Young Buddhist’s Association) member myself. I currently work with the temple board, asa YBA advisor, and I'm on the obon committee. I also play taiko with San Jose Taiko and have formally studied Odori with Michiya Hanyagi Kai. So I have always been around the festival, but probably in the last three years through YBA got more involved in the actual obon committee. But this year, for what we are calling Obon@Home, I am on the planning side.
What role do you play currently for this obon?
Our committee is usually around 70 people. But this year there are about a dozen of us that are focused on programming for the day. Myself and one other person are doing all of the public relations for the festival.
When did you decide to move it online?
We waited a long time to move it online. Our obon usually happens in the second weekend of July. In NorCal, we went into shelter-in-place in early March. We decided to follow local county health guidance to gage what we should do.
If they would have allowed us to have it, we may have held it and made sure to follow all health ordinances to ensure public safety. In mid-May we made the call to initially cancel it, and in early June we decided to do an online festival.
What does obon mean to you and your community?
Similar to other temples that have larger obon festivals, our obon is held in Japantown, and it is the center of our Japantown. Places like Little Tokyo have both temples and community centers but ours is really one and the same. There’s a lot of non-religious activities that run through our temple like basketball, judo, dance classes, or different clubs that might usually be found in a community center. That’s one of the reasons why I think our temple is so big.
Not only is San Jose Obon the largest obon in North America, it is one of the larger Asian festivals that happens in the Bay Area.
So, if you’re related to the temple, like an organization, then you are allowed to have a booth at the obon festival. Additionally, some of the larger families that are a part of the temple can also have a booth. All of the proceeds go back to the temple. Any organization or family tied to the temple can be a part of this obon and help the temple and our community.
What was the process of moving everything online?
Moving everything online was pretty seamless, actually. Our programming is segmented. The beginning of the day will have all the religious aspects of obon, like what does obon mean, Buddhism 101, and more. Then, we will move to the festival pieces. We will be showing footage and photos of our past obons, too. So, our official first obon happened in the early 1930s, so we’re looking at footage between now and then. We will also include all the normal activities: taiko performances online, dancing, and a fundraising component. Our usual emcees will be hosting the day, too.
We have a campaign leading up to the day of obon. We’ve included trivia, such as how many people come to obon, and how do we decide what dances. Every day we’ll be sharing the history and content of obon.
After creating our Obon@Home Facebook page, we’ve had over 2,000 people join so far. When we shared our page, it was shared almost 100 times and reached like 60,000 people. Finally, we decided to replay the whole event on Sunday so viewers don’t have to stay in front of the screen for eight full hours.
What tips do you have for folks looking to move their obons or matsuris online?
We learned a lot from the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival, who moved online in April. We met with them and learned what worked and what didn’t. A couple of things are being focused on the content and making it visually and auditory stimulating, parsing out your content, pre-recording as much as possible because technology can be finicky, and doing a lot of dress rehearsals.
Fortunately, because we can have small gatherings with social distancing in place, we will attempt to have a team of people at the temple that can help troubleshoot if things happen. They will also comment online to keep things streaming.
We also tested out various streaming platforms. We decided on Youtube and Facebook. We are mainly using Facebook because it allows for viewer interaction during the stream. We recommend having a Plan B. Finally, make sure there’s something for everyone. We are also including children’s arts and crafts and games you can play at home, so there’s something for everyone. Even if someone only has 30 minutes to spare, they know there’ll be something for them to tune into that day.
How can folks support your obon, and others this year?
People can help by spreading the word and tuning in. Our focus isn’t just about the fundraising, it’s about sharing our festival and Japantown community and the history of what we've been about this whole time. Also, giving people from other generations the ability to still pay respect to loved ones and enjoy some of the things that they may not be able to enjoy otherwise.
This story has been edited for length and clarity.
You can find out more about San Jose's Obon@Home by checking out their Facebook page HERE. Tune in on July 11th from 12:00 PM - 8:30 PM PST.