For many Japanese-Americans, Obon festivals are the highlight of summer. The Shin Buddhist tradition is similar to Day of the Dead; people remember their ancestors but also celebrate life with food, dance and music, the last of which resonates deeply in San Jose.
“Now we have a group that’s been performing at this Obon festival for more than six decades,” announced the MC of the annual event, held in the city’s Japantown earlier this month. “From San Jose, they practice just down the street. Here is the Chidori Band!”
The group of nearly two dozen musicians and singers began to play on a closed street in front of a Buddhist church, under strands of colorful lanterns and streamers. Between bouncing through game booths and food stalls, many festival-goers, some dressed in brightly patterned kimonos and yukatas, stopped to listen.
“We primarily play enka, which is Japanese folk music that sounds similar to country music,” says Michael Yoshihara, the Chidori Band’s director and saxophone player. “We have original, classic and contemporary Japanese songs, jazz and J-pop, and we definitely do Obon music.”
All summer long, the group headlines Obon festivals across the state, from Lodi to Los Angeles. The events are their speciality.
“Obon is a celebration of your roots or of those who have passed on before you,” Yoshihara says. “It’s a time to get back to your family roots.”
He adds that the group’s music also helps connect people back to those roots. Practically everyone and their grandmother knows of the Chidori Band if you’re a Japanese-American from California; the band has had a lot of time to build up a loyal audience, having formed in 1953. It was a difficult time for many Japanese-Americans, who were reestablishing their lives after the federal government forced them into internment camps during World War II.
It was in these camps where the San Jose Chidori Band and other similar bands took root. People had joined together in musical groups during their isolation.
When the war ended, many Japanese-Americans came back destitute and demoralized. But community leaders across the state saw music as a way to bring people together and preserve their culture, and asked those who had sung or played instruments in internment camps to create new bands.
“I sang in camp, and they approached us and said, ‘This is what we’re thinking,’” says Masayo Arii, 89, from Cupertino -- one of the Chidori Band’s original singers. Though groups were formed all over the state, “we’re the only one left now,” she says. “San Francisco, San Mateo, Sacramento, Fresno -- they all had bands, and San Francisco had a very good band, but they didn’t last.”
Marcia Hashimoto, 69, grew up listening to many of those groups, and still goes to see the Chidori Band. At her home in Watsonville, she still owns and listens to the band'd CDs, which bring back "wonderful memories of my childhood,” she says.
Her family would drive to see the band’s performances, which were usually packed. "It was just so wonderful to hear the quality of music,” she says. “It just made you feel so happy, that life was beginning to get back to normalcy, and these were the good times now.”
But the music isn’t just about nostalgia. At 25 years old, Emily Kawaguchi is one of the youngest members of the Chidori Band. She says she wants to carry the group into the future.
“Being a younger musician, I think there is a little bit of responsibility on the younger generation to continue and to share that kind of Japanese music with others,” she says.
And she’s not the only one. A 17-year-old joined this year, and the Chidori Band hopes to bring in even more young people to keep the music alive.
The Chidori Band performs Saturday, Aug. 6 at 6:20pm at the Buddhist Church of Oakland Obon Festival, and on Saturday, Aug. 13 at 6pm at Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church-Union City Obon Festival. For details and more information, see the Chidori Band's site.