Contract laborers from Japan were brought to Hawai'i in large numbers beginning in 1885. The first generation of Japanese immigrants, or issei, were primarily farmers, fishermen, and country folk. By 1920, forty percent of the population in Hawai'i was Japanese. Issei immigrants paved the way for their children (nisei, or second generation), grandchildren (sansei, or third generation), and great-grandchildren (yonsei, or fourth generation). The Japanese impact on local Hawaiian culture can be seen in many areas, including foods, customs, architecture, and public music and dance festivals.
Bon odori (or bon dance) in Hawai'i has endured many changes since the first group of issei arrived on the islands. During the plantation period (1880s to 1910s), the immigrants steadfastly kept the tradition alive despite low working wages, difficult living conditions, and isolation from their homeland. In the 1930s, with the new homeland established, the tradition was strengthened by new choreographies, new music, contests, and scheduled dances. During this time the bon dance became a popular social event that appealed particularly to the younger generation. After the outbreak of World War II in December 1941, priests were detained, temples were closed, and Japanese were discouraged from gathering in large numbers. It became dangerous for Japanese to make any public expressions of national pride. Bon dance activities probably did not take place again until after the war ended in 1945.
But during the 1950s and 1960s, a revival of bon odori took place. In addition to temple festivals, bon dances were sponsored by groups outside the temples for non-religious functions. During the 1950s, for example, local and tourist audiences could participate in bon dance events. In 1951, bon dances were held to commemorate the men who had lost their lives in World War II and in Korea. Eight years later, bon dance played a role in official celebrations of Hawai'i's statehood. Bon dance was also part of the 1976 U.S.-Hawai'i-Japan Bicentennial Culture Festival in Honolulu. Nowadays, the bon dance is recognized as a distinctive Japanese cultural and social event that attracts people from all ethnic groups in Hawai'i.
Japanese plantation laborers carried their religion, Buddhism, with them to Hawai'i. The first Buddhist priest officially sent to Hawai'i by mission headquarters in Japan arrived in 1889. By the early 1900s, Jōdo, Nichiren, Sōtō, and Shingon Buddhist sects had established temples in the islands. Religious worship gave early immigrants a sense of spiritual well-being, and religious festivals helped to make plantation life more tolerable, reinforcing family kinship and helping recreate the good times associated with their increasingly distant homeland.
Obon is the Japanese festival of the dead: a celebration of one's ancestors and deceased loved ones. Obon generally occurs in mid-August (though, in some places, in Japan it is celebrated in mid-July). During that time, it is believed that ancestral spirits return to their earthly home where they are honored and celebrated. Rituals associated with Obon include visiting cemeteries, washing tombstones, making offerings of lanterns, flowers and food, and performing rituals of sending visiting spirits back (often via waterways and to the sea). By far the most visible aspect of Obon is the bon odori, which refers to the dances performed during the Obon festival as well as all the festivities surrounding the bon dance. The Obon festival traditionally lasts only three days in Japan, but in Hawai'i, the bon dance season lasts several months, from June to early September. The bon dance remains an important Japanese cultural event of religious origin that has developed links to the larger community in Hawai'i.