Translation of Bon Dance Songs

When I was working at Jodo Mission of Hawaii in Honolulu in 1997, Bishop Chikai Shibamura once took me to the evening Dharma Talk at the Buddhist Study Center.   The speaker was Dr. Taitetsu Unno, a well known Shin Buddhist Scholar and minister all the way from Boston.   At that time, I was not so sure about my understanding in English, so I brought a cassette recorder with me.   What a brave man!!!...  I asked Dr. Unno if I could record the talk.  I remember he told me that I can feel free to record his talk.


Yes, I was right.  My understanding was so poor that I could only tell his talk and sense of humor were so outstanding.   Then I decided to do transcribing his talk from the recorded tape with a help of my English Tutor.


First, I wrote down words and sentences which I was able to catch from his talk and I took memo for what I was not able to follow.  There were actually more memos and blank and then together with my tutor, listened to the tape and filled the missing words.   As we worked together a little by little, I was so surprised to know there were actually some words that my English tutor couldn't catch and I often heard the expression from my tutor, "I think he said something like xxxx."   It was really surprising since I thought all American could catch what they are talking each other, but later I learned they never catch every single words while talking each other.  Rather for many parts, they omit and guess many words & meanings, and use assumption to understand what they are talking. 

As I stayed here longer, I got to know Japanese was same, too.   When I tried to transcribing lyrics from the Bon Dance CD.  There were many  words I couldn't catch with confidence.   Yes, they are Japanese which I speak and understand.  Most words are not difficult, but sometimes it was very hard to tell whether it is "wa" or "ga" from hearing.

In fact, when I saw some Japanese transcription of the lyrics made by Mrs. Aiko Nakaya through Mr. Alton Miyamoto.  There were some differences between hers and mine.  So I needed to listen to the CD again and again and again, but yet, there is still a part I'm not so sure which is correct.

I think as compared to English, Japanese should be easier to read but much more difficult to understand from hearing.  This is because Japanese doesn't have many consonants as compared to English.  As a result, there are much more homonyms (same pronunciation but different meanings.)   Therefore, when we need rightly to understand what they are talking , we need more knowledge of Japanese words, characters and their meanings.   Translation from lyrics is easy, but to have lyrics from hearing is hard

So the most difficult part of the translation of the Japanese Bon Dance Songs is to get correct Kanji characters of the lyrics.   

For example, one of the most difficult words from hearing was from a passage from "Tankou Bushi."

The word was "Shiki."   This word was used in the sentence "Shiki wo deru no o machi kane te...."

I am sure most Japanese don't know what is shiki?  Because there are many Kanji for Shiki, I needed to know which Kanji was used from the list below.


式 (Shiki =ceremony)




敷(Shiki = to lay)


死期(Shiki=One's last hour)




四季(Shiki=Four Season)


如き(Shiki=just like)




史記(Shiki, History Record)


始期(Shiki, Beginning Term)


織(Shiki=to weave)


鋪(Shiki=tunnel for a mine)


私記(Shiki, Private Diary


and so on and on.    Then I finally found out "shiki" in this song was written as (Shiki) which meant "a tunnel or passageway for a mine." 


Then another difficulty was figurative usage of the word or the metaphor for the special terms.  

For example, "Oya" is known as "parent."  Then "Mi-oya" or "Oya-sama" is a polite expression for the parent.  However, "Mi-oya" in the Jodo Buddhist tradition, this doesn't mean "parent but it's "Amida Buddha."  

This expression is included in the song, "Shiawase Samba."  I don't know if you know it or not, this my favorite song is actually a religious song.

I think everybody here likes the song "Shiawase Samba" and if you know some Japanese, you probably recognize the word "Shiawase" as "happy" or "happiness."   And most people imagine this song as "happy-go-lucky" song, don't you?


However, what this song means "Shiawase" is very religious.  Specifically, it talks about happiness to spread the teaching of Buddha and the word Amida Buddha is hidden in this song.  Then what does this song talk about?

Well, I've just uploaded a video of "Shiawase Samba" with English translation using last year's and this year's video!!!!  While hearing the song and looking dance, you can now see Japanese lyrics with English translation in the video above.  

Also I might start a series of lectures called "Let's learn Japanese with Bon Dance songs" to explain lyrics, word by word through my YouTube channel.  

Since I missed to take my vacation, I'm going to spend some time and energy for this translation project from now on.


Last apology to Mr. Alton Miyamoto who asked me to translate Bon Dance songs in English a few months ago.   I call Mr. Miyamoto as "Mr. Bon Dance of Kauai" who is so enthusiastic about sharing the heart of Bon Dance with many more people.  

He said he was hoping to distribute simple meaning of each song to the dancers but I'm sorry....I've just started!!!

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Comments: 3
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  • #3

    Cheryl Ono (Friday, 25 September 2020 02:44)

    I grew up in California dancing Obon. I really enjoy it and with my father's recent passing I became interested in the meaning of the lyrics. The video you offered was absolutely perfect. Both romaji and english translation was just what I was looking for. Thank you and god bless.