The Big Dance – Koenji Awa Odori

Summer festivals in Tokyo tend to be gatherings of 50,000 of your friends and neighbors, but the Koenji Awa Odori, with over 1,000,000 people in attendance over the two day event, still ranks as one of the largest in Tokyo. How did a festival in a quiet little neighborhood of Western Tokyo grow to such enormous proportions?

Likely, it has come about due to the now 10,000 participants in the festival, dance troupes from all of Tokyo and now Japan. The event is a constant stream of dancers, along the main street outside the station and spilling over into side streets. Awa odori (odori meaning dance) has its roots in Obon, the festival honoring the dead, but has grown into its own. While Obon festivals tend to be more restrained, Awa Odori use more instruments and more vigorous dance moves. Like Obon, spectators are encouraged to join in the fun. Like all festivals, food vendors set up stalls with delicious festival snacks (and of course, what would a festival be without beer?).

It makes sense to use this article to point out the difference between “honoring” and “worshipping” the dead. Many people falsely believe that Obon festivals “worship” the dead. This likely comes from the fact that followers of Taoist Buddhism believe the spirits of dead ancestors revisit the household altars (butsudan) during this time period and people pray at those altars. Prayers are not meant to be offered “to” these spirits, but on behalf of these spirits, whom the living may believe are trapped in some spirit world of suffering.

Obon is actually a celebration based on a Buddhist monk who prayed for his mother to be released from this world of suffering and in the process, recognized her love and selflessness to him. Through his recognition of the sacrifices she made for him, he danced for joy, which became Obon. So Obon is a time to “honor” the love and sacrifice of people, not unlike the American holiday of Memorial Day for those who gave their lives for the ideals of America.

The songs and dances of Obon are often based on the daily lives of the people of ancient Japan, filled with movements like hauling in fishing nets, mining for coal, and planting rice. Watching them is like a glimpse into the Japan of old.

We attended this event as the kickoff “photowalk” of our Ekoda Photography Club. It was a great thought at the time, but now having experienced it, I would probably think better of taking a large group to this event in the future. We ended up losing a couple members of our group less than an hour into the event and with the swelling crowd and limited space to stand, it was going to be impossible to find them again. Additionally, it was very difficult to find good spots to take photos; some people who wanted good shots were there at 4:30am to stake out the best locations. This was frustrating for me and I’m sure even more so for less experienced photographers.

Even so, we did have an enjoyable time and got a few memorable pictures and probably many more good memories that we were not able to capture on camera.

Start Again – Yona Ishikawa

She stood on the rooftop, guitar in hand, looking like a rock star. The camera drone circled around her, like a planet orbits a star. Yona Ishikawa created that gravity, pulling you into her music, into her world.

We were on the roof with a video mission team my friend and colleague Paul Nethercott brought from Minnesota. This was the third of three Christian artists they were shooting music video for and by far the most elaborate production. The day before, they had shot at an industrial warehouse in the pouring rain. Today, the rooftop of the house they were staying in and the streets of the surrounding neighborhood.

The incredible revelation about Yona does not lie in her current state as a confident musician rocking it out in music videos on rooftops shot by a film crew from the States. It is in her backstory, when she spent ten years suffering from depression and life as hikkokomori, living as a shut-in in her home with little social interaction. It is often difficult for people who have lived through depression to share their experience with others, particularly in Japan, but Yona felt it was important to share her experience to let people know that God can transform lives, like He lifted her out of her state of depression and isolation. She even wrote a book, “Start Again” (in Japanese only) about her experience.

Though I wasn’t present for the interview, Paul explained her story to me and told me about the song we were recording the video for:

“The song we recorded with her is called Industrial Waste!  (産業廃棄物). She said that is how she felt, worthless and of no use to anyone, just garbage. However, she came to realize that God loves her just the way she is.”
You can clearly see from the photos that Yona is a changed woman. She is a musician, artist, and writer whose confidence and joy hide a very difficult and dark past that she overcame through her faith in Jesus.
Conservative estimates indicate 500,000 people are living as hikkikomori in Japan today, though the numbers likely exceed 1 million because many cases go unreported by family members of the afflicted. Millions more are suffering from some form of depression, often ending in suicide. Please pray for those in Japan who are suffering and for people like Yona to come forward to share how God transforms and heals.