Olympia’s Bon Odori, a Japanese dance festival, always has ended with a remembrance of those who’ve died. This year’s festival on Saturday will end with a remembrance of those who live — survivors of the March earthquake in Japan.
“There are still people who are homeless, who are living in shelters, who are still trying to find their way after catastrophic loss,” said Reiko Callner, one of the organizers of the Olympia event. It’s sponsored by the Japanese American Citizens League and the Olympia-Kato Sister City Association. “There are still people who need help.”
Money collected will go to Direct Relief International, a nonprofit with a sterling reputation, Callner said. “They were given a very generous bequest to pay for administrative costs, so 100 percent of donations are dedicated to the intended recipient, which is unusual.”
And attendees will be invited to offer help beyond the monetary.
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“At Japanese temples and shrines, people will frequently take a strip of paper, write a prayer, a wish or a remembrance and tie it around a gate, a fence or the branch of a tree,” Callner said. “We will incorporate that tradition.”
The hanging of wishes will replace the traditional floating of lanterns to honor those who have died and express hopes for peace. The lantern floating requires using the lake, which is not permitted now because of a snail infestation. (Last year, lanterns were launched from West Bay Park, but splitting the festival between two locations proved complicated, and organizers chose to forgo it.)
The new ceremony is not the only change to the festival, which focuses on traditional folk dances celebrating the everyday activities of Japanese life. Lacey’s River Ridge High School Taiko will perform at the event for the first time.
For many longtime festivalgoers, perhaps the biggest news is that this year, new dances will join old favorites such as Tanko Bushi (the coal miner’s dance).
The new dances are Nembutsu Ondo, which imitates taiko drumming and can be done with or without taiko sticks, and Mikoko Ondo, which shows the gestures of praying and remembering one’s ancestors.
“This dance is a hand dance,” Callner said of Mikoko Ondo. “It’s very easy, and it’s fun.”
The dances, done by experienced performers and newcomers alike, help to connect all who attend the festival.
Organizers hope the focus on earthquake survivors will serve as a reminder of the community’s international connections, which go well beyond the kinship of those from JACL who have roots and often relatives in Japan.
“In the Pacific Northwest, all of us have an awful lot of ties to Japan financially and culturally and economically,” Callner said. “Also, Japan has been one of the most important philanthropic donors in the world.”
One result of that generosity is part of everyday life here — and a reminder of something else the Northwest shares with Japan.
“In 2001, when we had our earthquake, Yashiro, our sister city (now called Kato), gave a major donation toward the reconstruction of our bridge between the East and West sides,” Callner said. “That’s why the bridge was named the Olympia-Yashiro Friendship Bridge.”