Japanese Culture: Honoring the Spirits of the Ancestors during Obon

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Japanese Culture: Honoring the Spirits of the Ancestors during Obon

Rhiannon Thomas

Modern Tokyo Times

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Obon is a traditional Buddhist festival in Japan to honor the spirits of ancestors. Although it is not an official holiday in Japan, Obon is a popular time for family reunions, when people return home to visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, while these ancestral spirits are believed to visit the household altars.

The festival finds its origins in the story of a Buddhist Monk known in Japan as Mokuren. After Mokuren’s mother died, he had a vision showing him that her soul was in torment. He saw her as a Hungry Ghost, only one step above Hell, unable to find peace until her misdeeds on earth were repaid. A priest advised him to carry out a series of good deeds on his mother’s behalf to balance out her karma, and when these efforts paid off, Mokuren was so overjoyed that he broke out into a dance.

Obon was first celebrated in Japan in the 7th century. In modern-day Japan, Obon has become a major event and one of the busiest travel periods of the year, but different regions celebrate in dramatically different ways. Although Obon always lasts for 3 days, regions even disagree on when Obon should actually occur, due to a mix-up that occurred when the traditional Lunar Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era. Some regions, particularly the northern Kanto region and many parts of Okinawa, still celebrate the traditional Kyuu Bon (or “Old Bon”), which falls around the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, a date which, like Easter, moves around every year. Some areas of Tokyo, meanwhile, celebrate Shichigatsu Bon (“July Bon”), which begins on July 14th and ends on July 16th. However, the most popular time to celebrate Obon is around August 15th (Hachigatsu Bon or “August Bon”). Although Obon officially falls in July in Tokyo, many companies will close for August Bon, so that employees can join the festivities in their hometowns.

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Despite the variations that appear in each region’s celebration of Obon, some fundamental similarities remain. On the first day, known as Mukae Bon or “Welcome Bon,” families place food offerings and paper chouchin lanterns on their household altars and visit their ancestors’ graves in order to call their spirits back home. In some regions, fires called Mukaebi (“Welcome Fires”) are lit outside the entrance to the home in order to guide spirits on their journeys home, and family members will wait outside to welcome them in just after darkness falls. Some families will eat a special meal of a porridge-like food called jushi on this night, offering some of the food to the returning dead.

On the second day of Obon (usually the 15th of either July or August), many communities emulate Mokuren’s joyful celebrations by holding a Bon-Odori: a Bon Dance. These dances usually reflect traditional dancing and music of the area, but typically involve people dancing in a large circle around a high wooden structure called a Yagura, which is built specially for the occasion. This Yagura also serves as a bandstand for the dance’s musicians.

The last day of Obon is Okuri Bon or “Bon of Sending Off.” On this day, families guide their ancestors back to their graves using chouchin lanterns that have been painted with the family crest.  The festival usually ends with the famous Toro Nagashi, the Floating of the Lanterns. Paper lanterns are lit by a candle and floated down rivers or across lakes to symbolize the return of the spirits to the world of the dead. These events usually culminate with a large fireworks display. However, in Morioka, an area in Northern Japan, celebrations are even more spectacular, with the community sending off the spirits by burning boats full of fireworks.

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