Okaeri’s inaugural Queer Obon — a community festival that gathers the Nikkei LGBTQ+ community to remember queer ancestors through ceremony and dance — was held June 17 at Terasaki Budokan in Little Tokyo with about 400 people in attendance.
Obon is rooted in a Buddhist sutra about a monk who sought to free his mother from the realm of suffering. Around 1,400 years ago, this sutra inspired Buddhist monks in Japan to start a new ritual tradition, which transformed across time and continents into a Nikkei summer gathering to honor and reflect on lost loved ones and joyful, diverse communities.
Okaeri continues this tradition with an inclusive festival of queer joy, remembrance, and belonging.
Emceed by traci akemi kato-kiriyama and Sean Miura, the program began with a memorial service conducted in English and Japanese by Rev. Amy Umezu, Rev. John Iwohara and Rev. Keisuke Lee-Miyaki.
The evening’s performers were: Mujo Dream Flight, the artistic vehicle of founding taiko artists Sasen Cain, Yeeman “ManMan” Mui, and Maxyn Rose Leitner in collaboration with other predominantly trans/non-binary taiko artists; and Gia Gunn, an international performance artist who began her training in kabuki theater, rose to stardom after her debut on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and publicly came out as a transgender woman in 2017.
With Gunn and Mariko Rooks serving as dance practice leaders, first-timers and experienced festival-goers alike joined in the Bon Odori.
The food vendors were Azay and Milk & T. Philip Hirose of Azay reached out to the following family farms, who shared their harvests: the Masumotos, the Yasutomis, the Kashimas, the Kodas, the Tamais, the Yakipapis and Fujiya Market.
The Queer Obon was organized by Okaeri Co-chair Mia Barnett, Scott Oshima and Keith Nishida.
Founded in 2014, Okaeri’s mission is to create visibility, compassionate spaces, and transformation for LGBTQ+ Nikkei and their families by sharing stories and providing culturally rooted support, education, community-building, and advocacy. The biennial Okaeri Conference will be held virtually and in-person from Nov. 10 to 12 at the Japanese American National Museum. Info: www.okaeri-losangeles.org/conference-2023
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo