A look back at the history of Obon in Portland, Oregon

Obon is a Japanese and Japanese American Buddhist summertime festival for celebrating one’s ancestors with Bon Odori (dances), lanterns, and food offerings at temples or Butsudan (home altars). This tradition continues to this day at various sites in Portland. For example, all are welcome to join in the celebration at the Oregon Buddhist Temple on the first Saturday of August. 

Look through these photos to get a sense of what Obon Fest was like in Portland from the late 1940s into the 1970s. The first set of images from mid-20th century are part of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon’s Hirahara Collection and were taken by electrical engineer and award-winning photographer Frank C. Hirahara between 1948 and 1954. You can read more about this collection here.

dancers in traditional robes, each with their own patterns and colors, hold circular hand fans over their heads, creating a circle with both arms. They are standing on the pavement at Holladay Park. In the background is the  yagura, or scaffold–a specially built structure that Obon dancers perform around. There is a crowd of spectators on both the left and the right sides of the dancers, receding into the background. Many lanterns hang overhead.

In the first picture, dancers are performing the Obon no Uta, which is still used today as the opening Bon Oduri. They are making circles with their arms above their heads, which is a reminder that all of us–both past and present–are connected. You can see the yagura, or scaffold, in the center–a specially built structure that Obon dancers perform around. Do you recognize this location? It’s Holladay Park, long before the Lloyd Center and MAX line were built.

5 men can be seen performing a bon odori dance inside of Norse Hall. They each hold their right arms up in an L shape near their heads and their left arms outstretched in front of them. Some are wearing robes with sandals and others are wearing floral button-up shirts with slack and shoes. There is a tight crowd of onlookers seated behind the men. Lanterns hang from the ceiling.

Shig Yuzuriha and friends dancing at Norse Hall, a venue on NE 11th that you can still visit today. This photo would have been taken sometime between when Shig graduated from Lincoln High School and when he received his pharmacy degree from Oregon State College.

Three women dance in front of the stage at Norse Hall with the wisteria banner hanging in the background.

Can you guess what this Bon Odori is called by looking at the dancer’s gestures? Many Obon dances are regional, but this one has become popular all over. It’s called Tanko Bushi, the coal miner’s dance, where participants dig for coal with invisible shovels. This is the dance that now closes out Obon Fest at the Oregon Buddhist Temple.

A square wooden structure with a gabled roof and that contains a stage about 5 feet off the ground surrounded by a railing sits in a parking lot. On the stage a man wearing a gray robe and sunglasses plays a large round taiko drum. 2 dancers can be seen getting ready to perform. In the foreground are wooden folding chairs where a boy and 2 women wait for the performance to start.

When you look through old photos of Obon Fest in Portland, you will undoubtedly spot Henry Matsunaga. That’s because he was THE guy when it came to playing the taiko drum and keeping the beat for the dances. In Bon Odori, the dancers move around the central Yagura scaffold where drummers, singers, and other musicians perform.

Music was always an important part of Henry Matsunaga’s life. At Minidoka, he and his brother Roy organized the Norakuro Band, a harmonica band that included other instruments and played at camp dances. His harmonica was one of the few possessions he took with him when his family was forced to leave their home.

These pictures show Henry at the taiko drum throughout the years. In the first one, you can see spectators watching as the Obon dancers and Henry prepare to perform in the Oregon Buddhist Temple parking lot in the 1970s. Colorful lanterns radiate out from the yagura.

Here he is again inside the yagura behind the fujinkai women’s group at the Oregon Buddhist Church about 1975. Look closely to pick out your friends and relatives!

This last photo is the oldest, with Portland Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee speaking at Obon sometime between 1948-1954.

Image credits: Photos 1-4: Courtesy of Frank C. Hirahara Collection, Japanese American Museum of Oregon. Photos 5-6: Gift of George and Janice Okamoto. Photo 7: Courtesy of the Frank C. Hirahara Collection.