Ted Tanaka Set to Emcee Obon Festival This Weekend

Palisadians Invited to Celebrate Japanese Tradition

The hollow sounds of taiko drums can be heard over the sizzle of teriyaki on the grill as sweet-smelling smoke rises up to paper lanterns lighting the night sky. Hundreds of dancers draped in bright, silk kimonos dance to the rhythm, telling stories of Japanese tradition. For 66 years, members of the West LA Buddhist Temple have celebrated Japanese American Buddhist culture at the annual summertime celebration, Obon Festival.

Palisadian Ted Tanaka will emcee the 66th annaul Obon Festival at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple this weekend. Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer
Palisadian Ted Tanaka will emcee the 66th annaul Obon Festival at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple this weekend.
Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer

Palisadian Ted Tanaka was a year old when he attended his first festival at the temple – an early social center for Japanese immigrants unfamiliar with American culture. Tanaka’s father was the festival’s exclusive taiko drummer for more than two decades. This year, it’s Tanaka who will emcee the two-day event.

“Obon season is a time to express our gratitude to loved ones who have passed on before us. Without them, we would not be where we are and we would not be able to do the things we do to enjoy life. It’s a celebration and remembrance of them,” he said. “The Palisades community should know that this is here, has been here for a long time, and is open to anyone who is interested.”

Saturday night, festival go-ers will line up in circles around a wooden platform called the yagura, the bandstand for the musicians, and dance to the accompaniment of singing and taiko drums, paying homage to traditional occupations like fishing and farming.

“Everyone is encouraged to join in with the dancers in their kimonos. It doesn’t matter whether you are Buddhist or not, whether you are new to bon odori or if you know the steps,” Tanaka said. “The importance of the dance is to express joy and gratitude for life. We just dance, it doesn’t matter what you look like.”

In harmony with the sights and sounds of the festival, Obon boasts an incredible array of food – including chicken and beef teriyaki, curry rice, sushi, mochi and even snow cones.

The 500-year-old tradition came to southern California 125 years ago with Japanese immigrants; Tanaka’s parents were among them. With no money or understanding of the English language, his father came to California as a migrant worker, picking lima beans in the marsh of present-day Marina Del Rey. His mother, only 17 at the time, came by boat on a one-way ticket from Japan.

“As immigrants, the Japanese workers were consider aliens and therefore not permitted to own real estate. No one would rent to them so they kept going until someone would. They gravitated towards Sawtelle Boulevard, just a dirt road on the outskirts of town back then,” Tanaka said.

The area had become a satellite enclave for the Japanese, but in 1942 President Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in the western United States to leave their homes and move to internment camps away from the coast.

Tanaka and his family were held at the Manzanar Relocation Center from 1942 to 1945 where they lived in desert barracks, facing 120-degree temperatures in the summer and harsh snow in the winter.

“Anyone from Japan or of Japanese descent was considered a potential enemy. After Pearl Harbor, everyone was scared,” Tanaka said. “Thirty years before that, Japan had been a closed country for 200 years and the government was worried immigrants might harbor loyalty to Japan. There was a lot of underlying emotion in the decision.”

The most difficult thing to understand, Tanaka remembers, was seeing 18-year-old Japanese men drafted out of the internment camps to fight for the United States in WWII.

As swiftly as the Japanese were removed from their homes, in 1946 they were released from the internment camps and expected to rejoin society. Each person was given $25 and left to find their way home – but many discovered that their pre-war communities were no more.

“I remember the day we were released, driving out of the camp, we drove to Beverly Hills to stay with a family who had employed my mother before the war,” Tanaka said. “At six years old, to go from living in tar paper barracks directly into a luxury residence next to the Beverly Hills Hotel – can you imagine?”

Living across the street from famous ‘50s gangster movie actor Edward G. Robinson, Tanaka knew he was among privilege.

“When I walked daily to school, he would drive his Cadillac Coupe de Ville with his trademark, 12-inch long cigar, ” he said.

Tanaka become a student at University High School and by graduation, he was determined to make Pacific Palisades his home.

“Everyone was wonderful to me and they embraced me. Many of my peers were from well-to-do, educated and broad-minded families. I never felt like an outsider,” Tanaka said, recalling Friday night co-ed mixers in the Palisades and YMCA service club meetings.

Tanaka attended Cal State Northridge, which he hoped would lead him to work with defense electronics. Instead, he went to work in computer manufacturing, and then at 26, Tanaka was the 17th hire at an emerging management-consulting firm. He remained there for 11 years before going to work for himself. At 33, Tanaka purchased one of the first lots in the Highlands where he and his wife Darlene raised their two sons, Ryan and Scott.

Today,semi-retired Tanaka is a self-employed international consultant planning to make his 201st trip to Japan this fall.

“Obon is a reminder to enjoy the good in life, because of the sacrifices of our parents and ancestors. I want my grandchildren to know where they came from,” Tanaka said. “That is why the festival continues; we have so much to celebrate.”

Obon Festival
Obon Festival

OBON FESTIVAL | Saturday and Sunday

This year’s West Los Angeles Obon Festival will be held on Saturday, July 26 from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and on Sunday, July 27 from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Parking will be available from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. at the Trident Center parking structure one block south of West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. Visit westlosangelesbuddhisttemple.org.