August 6 marks the 75th anniversary of one of the darkest days in human history, the dropping of the first atomic bomb on a human population, in Hiroshima, Japan. The specter of nuclear war has never lifted from our collective spirits ever since, and no one has yet figured out a long-term storage solution for the toxic waste created by “peaceful” nuclear energy generation.
The United Nations, as well as peace groups worldwide, had planned an impressive roster of public gatherings to commemorate the solemn anniversary. Then Covid 19 happened, and those events all had to be scaled down for remote platforming.
Every year at this time, chef Youko Yamamoto – former proprietor of Gomen-Kudasai Noodle Escape in New Paltz, known for hosting authentic Japanese cultural events such as the annual mochi-pounding party – organizes the Bon-Odori Dance Festival for Peace. In summers past it has been held at New Paltz’s Hasbrouck Park and Kingston Point Park. This year, the commemorations will go on, spread over a week instead of a weekend, and attendance will happen online.
“There won’t be dancing together, singing together, or praying together. There won’t be food vending, taiko drumming or martial arts demonstrations. We must keep the social distance or meet in online events,” Yamamoto writes on her not-for-profit peace organization’s website, www.bonodori.org.
Bon-Odori is a traditional Buddhist festival held in Japan each summer to honor the spirits of one’s forebears, ease their passage, and appreciate their sacrifices. Japanese families celebrate the three-day holiday of Bon or Obon by gathering in their ancestral towns, cleaning and decorating gravesites, building altars in their homes, and making food offerings.
It’s also a fire festival, in which people light the way of the dead to their rightful homes by floating lit candles on bodies of water. The Odori part refers to dance – an important component of the festival, since it partially commemorates a dance of joy performed by an acolyte of the Buddha after he succeeded in freeing the suffering spirit of his dead mother from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
Because the holiday coincides on the calendar with the grim anniversaries of the nuclear bombings, the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have received special remembrance at Bon-Odori ceremonies over the past 75 years. That’s a big part of Yamamoto’s mission as well, along with raising public consciousness about the lingering health effects of radioactivity, including from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster.
“Bon-Odori Dance Festival for Peace is a fun summer event based on the Japanese Buddhist festival and we made our Bon-Odori a special opportunity for the community to learn about the nuclear disasters,” writes Yamamoto. “We pray together for the victims and work together toward a nuclear-free future.”
Events for this year’s Week of Unity will take place from August 1 through 8, primarily at Seed Song Farm in Kingston, and be broadcast on Radio Kingston, WKNY 1490 AM, 107.9 FM. All physical events are limited to no more than 50 people and will comply with New York State pandemic safety precautions, including wearing masks and staying at least six feet apart. Admission is free, but donations to Bon-odori are welcome.
Seed Song Farm, located at 160 Esopus Avenue, will host a Pop-Up Theater from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, August 1 and 2. Both nights’ screenings – which you can actually attend in person, by reservation – will include the war anime In This Corner of the World (2016), plus a documentary feature: The Horses of Fukushima (2013) on Saturday and Voices from Chernobyl (2016) on Sunday. Farm-fresh refreshments will be available.
On Tuesday, August 4 from 7 to 8:30 p.m., the spotlight will shine on the Kingston Peace Conference 2020, available via Zoom. Carol Robins will moderate a panel consisting of Manna Jo Greene, Alvin Konigsberg, Patrick Sciarratta and other speakers. Call 853-8111 or visit www.bonodori.org/peace-conference to register and get the Zoom password.
Ceremonies to commemorate the anniversary of the bombings will focus on Hiroshima on Wednesday, August 5 and Nagasaki on Saturday, August 8, including prayers and moments of silence timed to coincide with observances in those cities and other places around the globe. They will be broadcast and streamed live from Seed Song Farm, from 7 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and 9:45 to 10:15 p.m. on Sunday. Each program features performances by Prana, the Vanaver Caravan, Barely Lace, Liana Gabel and Juma Sultan, plus readings of excerpts from John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Rabindranath Tagore’s “Poem of Peace.” For registration and other details, visit www.bonodori.org.
“Under this current condition of the extreme stress of the Covid`19 pandemic, we are learning how important it is to keep a good relationship with our community members, local businesses and government as well as the rest of the world,” Yamamoto adds. “We need to belong to society, and get depressed when we feel that our society is losing its structure. We feel like we are no longer safe. However, this could be a good opportunity to start seeing the world differently. Many crises have happened in world history caused by natural and manmade disasters, such as earthquakes and wars. Yet we have always arisen from the most helpless of times. I believe that now is the time for us to learn from the past and move forward .… Most important, we must unite to end war, and the inhumane use of atomic weapons.”