What is Niigata Ondo? I was very curious when I first heard it at Zenshuji a few years ago. I actually came from Niigata, but I had never heard it before. Then I got it when I saw them dancing at the very end of Bon Dance. It was not a newly introduced song but a very traditional song which is usually played at the end of Bon Dance here on Kauai. It’s been known as “Betcho.”
However, Kauai Soto Zen Temple renamed this song as “Niigata Ondo” since their president Mr. Gerald Hirata found out the meaning of “Betcho” after some researches. It’s an argot or secret Japanese language to mean female’s genital organ or intercourse. I’m sure people must be shocked to know its meaning. Therefore it was kind of natural reaction to avoid to use this word of “Betcho” since Bon Dances are held at temples. This is how “Betcho” was renamed.
However, I want to continue to use the word “Betcho” because this is the name of beloved song we have inherited from the predecessors on Kauai. In addition, there seems to be already “Niigata Ondo” in Japan which is completely different song/dance from the one played on Kauai. I don’t think it’s a good idea to use “Niigata Ondo” just because they say…the song was transmitted from Niigata.
What we need is not to change the name but to change how to understand the name. Why female genital organ is used as a name of the song? And what is the meaning of intercourse in the song of “Betcho”?
I regard one of the important meanings to hold Bon dance is to renew our appreciation to our ancestors. Then how we honor our ancestors?
Of course, prayers and chanting sutras are important but one of the best ways to honor ancestors may be to show family’s property. Traditionally family’s prosperity means more children. The more children we get, the happier our ancestors must be. If this understanding is true, “betcho” plays a significant role for the family’s prosperity. Needless to say, without "Betcho", no children is born.
Interestingly, in the song of traditional Betcho, there are two ways of dancing are used by the two groups of dancers. They are dancing in the completely different direction in the circle. One group is dancing clockwise and another group is dancing anti-clockwise. If you look these two different dances as a whole, I always see “Betcho” as boys meeting girls. Therefore, I could understand the meaning of “Betcho” as “man and woman.”
Some years ago, there was a popular song called “Hokkai Bon Uta” was played at Bon Dances on Kauai. This was a song from Hokkaido and Bon towel or Tenugui is used for the song. I don’t know when it was taken out from the Bon Dance numbers but it’s been a while since I danced this song last time.
Then I was so happy to find this dancing from the old Digital videotapes I took in 2003! when I looked at the dancing carefully, I became excited because I found so much similarity to the song called “Betcho.” Then I got a right keywords of “Betcho and Hokkai Bon Uta.”
I found out “Hokkai Bon Uta” was actually created from the song called “Betcho-bushi” after the World War II. It’s even introduced in the Wikpedia article, stating “Hokkai Bon Uta” originated to the song called “Betcho” which were full of dirty slang lyrics. This was mainly danced by the workers at coal mines in Hokkaido but after revising lyrics and tune, it was renamed as “Hokkai Bon Uta.” Especially after Mihashi Michiya sang this “Hokkai Bon Uta” it became a hit and well known throughout Japan.
Now I’m definitely opposed to rename the song of “Betcho” as Niigata Ondo. Rather I’m in favor to keep using “Betcho.” Meaning? Instead of explaining it by words, it will be great if we all can show its dancing.