By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Westport, CT – For over 500 years, “Bon”, a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the departed spirits of one’s ancestors, has been celebrated in Japan. The summer event traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori, which took center stage in a modified form as part of the Bon-Odori Festival conducted by the Japan Society of Fairfield County on Jesup Green Saturday afternoon. This year, the Festival was also dedicated to the survivors of the earthquakes and resulting tsunami in Japan this past March.
Besides the traditional folk dance, the event included thunderous performances by the Taiko Drum Group from the University of Connecticut, yo-yo fishing in which children have to fish for balloons bobbing in a wading pool using small hooks, and the selling of decorative handheld fans called uchiwa.
The Festival attracted curious onlookers who wandered over from nearby shops, attendees that dressed for fun in summer kimonos called yukatas and others of Japanese or related ancestry that came to remember loved ones that have passed or just show their support for the cause. When not participating in an activity, they huddled in the shade of trees, seeking relief from an unforgiving sun and dense hot air that had dug itself in over the last few days in a record-shattering heatwave.
Yumi McDonald, Vice President of the Japan Society of Fairfield County, led the activities, announcing each performer or segment of the event. She was dressed in a colorful yukata herself as was her daughter, Alice, 15, a Staples High School student, and her classmate Rachel Paul, 14, who came to lend their support.
Despite wearing her yukata, Alice said she was still feeling hot. “We’re using our uchiwas and our wagasas (traditional Japanese umbrellas) to try to stay cool.”
Looking on with her three-year-old daughter Mia, Joy DeJaeger, of Norwalk, was one of the many that came to honor ancestors. “My heritage is Japanese-American,” she explained. “My parents emigrated here from Hiroshima in 1952. My dad was a missionary, who just passed. He came to California as a young man and met my mom, an American. He came to help Japanese-Americans who were being oppressed in the United States after World War II.”
Dressed in yukatas, Mayumi Kleinman and her husband George said they were long-time members of the Japan Society and attend most of the group’s events. With regard to the Bon-Odori, Mayumi said, “I like the dancing and drum performances.”
Motoko Ishizuka of Cos Cob brought her two daughters Jenny, 3, and Catie, 5, to the event. “I wanted to show them the culture,” she said. “This is fun for the whole family.” On a more serious note, though, Motoko added, “Many of my friends’ friends were affected by the tsunami. It was terrible. We want to do anything we can to help.”
Souksakhone “Suki” Sithiphon came up from Norwalk to attend the Fest, meeting family that came down from Hartford. Of Laotian/Thai heritage, she was no less enthusiastic about the Japanese celebration. In fact, her family was special guests of the Japan Society. Her father, Boungai, is president of the Connecticut Laotian Society and held an event in New Britain back in late June that raised $3,700 for relief of Japanese quake survivors. He was introduced to the gathering and recognized for his efforts by Yumi McDonald.
In addition to enjoying the festivities, Suki and Boungai hoped to do some networking with Asian community members that had gathered.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, inconspicuous on the sidelines in a ballcap and sunglasses, had a special connection to the event. “I lived in Tokyo for eight years as a CBS News correspondent,” he said. “I have great affection for the Japanese people and their culture. Even the weather today reminds me of a Japanese summer – hot and humid. Even during the hot summer, Japanese would dress very elegantly. I have very good memories of my stay.”
With regard to the devastating quakes in Japan earlier this year, Joseloff said, “Japan is a very resilient country that has suffered disasters for centuries. They’ll get through this. Meanwhile, we will continue to support the private organizations here that are helping Japan. The Asian community is one of the largest minority populations in Westport.”