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Young girls dressed in Japanese kimonos dance to music during a celebration of the Bon Odori festival in Kuala Lumpur in 1999. Photo: AFP

Bon Odori Festival: Malaysian minister tells Muslims to avoid ‘un-Islamic’ Japanese dance event

  • The Bon Odori Festival to be held in Shah Alam contains elements that ‘could affect our religion and beliefs’, Islamic affairs minister Idris Ahmad said
  • A councillor in the Selangor state capital responded to Idris’ remarks by slamming his Pan Islamic Party for its ‘ignorance’ of Malaysia’s cultural diversity
Malaysia’s Islamic affairs minister Idris Ahmad has advised Muslims to avoid a festival of Japan’s traditional summer Bon dance as it contains elements from other religions that go against Islam, according to the official news agency Bernama.

“A study conducted by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) found that the festival does have religious elements, so we advise Muslims not to participate in it,” he is quoted as saying on Monday about the upcoming 46th edition of the Bon Odori Festival.

The event will be held on July 16 in Shah Alam, the capital of Selangor state, after a two-year absence because of the coronavirus pandemic. Its organisers include the Japanese embassy in Malaysia and the Japan Club of Kuala Lumpur.

A poster for the 46th Bon Odori Festival, to be held in Shah Alam in July, features dancing women wearing hijabs and face masks. Photo: Facebook / Bon Odori Malaysia

Idris, who is from the conservative Pan Islamic Party or PAS, also took offence at the event’s promotional poster that depicts an anime version of a kimono-clad woman in a hijab.

“That’s why we hope such confusion does not arise. JAKIM as the coordinating party [of Islamic affairs in the country] advises Muslims not to participate in programmes like this or any programme that could affect our religion and beliefs,” he added.

The festival has long been popular in Malaysia, having attracted a huge crowd with its carnivallike atmosphere of music, dance and plenty of Japanese food. Locals have even turned up in yukata or kimono to add to the festive mood.

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But the PAS young women’s wing known as Ameerah Malaysia issued a statement saying it is haram or forbidden for Muslims to participate in such a religious festival.

Ameerah said Bon Odori is a festival that honours the spirit of the departed and the dance is to entertain the ancestors’ spirit, thus it is un-Islamic.

Shah Alam councillor Muhammad Shakir Ameer slammed the party for its “lack of understanding and ignorance on cultural diversity in Malaysia”.

He also noted the deep diplomatic and trade ties between Japan and Malaysia. Shah Alam, the venue of the Bon Odori Festival, is home to several big Japanese manufacturing facilities such as those of Panasonic, Sharp and Shin-Etsu Chemical.

“From my understanding, the main attraction is the musical elements of it such as the dance and the drums. It has to be understood that this celebration has been going on for more than 30 years,” the councillor said in a statement on Tuesday. “Why does it have to become an issue in this day?”