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Japanese Obon Festival

A Buddhist monk, able to see the dead, saw his mom having a hard time in the afterworld of Hungry Ghosts, the Hell of Hunger. Horrified by his clairvoyant vision, the Buddhist monk, Mokuren, went to Buddha and was instructed to offer each Buddhist monk offerings on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. Doing so and seeing his mother’s release, Mokuren recognized just how much she had actually compromised for him and danced in fantastic joy and appreciation. Similar to the story of Mokuren, the Japanese Obon (pronounced o-bone) festival is a household oriented celebration which appreciates the sacrifices of one’s ancestors.

Japan’s style of commemorating their ancestor’s sacrifices has its origins soaked in Buddhist culture. Obon has been commemorated each year considering that its intro by the Chinese in the seventh century (more accurately 657 A. D. ). Abbreviated from Urabon (the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit word “Ullambana”), Obon means “to hang upside down,” which communicates the retched suffering of either body or spirit, actually or metaphorically, of being hung upside down.

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Obon is a routine, which operates according to Sakyamuni Buddha’s Urabon Sutra, the story of Mokuren.

This ritual was practiced the very same way Sakyamuni Buddha instructed Mokuren to do, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. This custom changed over the centuries and is now more commonly practiced August 13-16th, though a lot of places in Okinawa (southern Japan) still commemorate Obon on the Lunar Calendar’s seventh month. Like the story indicates, Obon is not a mournful event and is referred to as the Celebration of Light or the Celebration of Delight.

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For the 3 days of Obon, people might dance, eat good food, play video games, and hope to show the pleasure they have for what their ancestors needed to offer up when they lived.

These celebratory features however, must be prepared for to adequately honor the ancestor’s spirits. Before the Obon festival begins, families gather and prepare their homes and the family’s shrine in order to show thanks to their ancestors. Once the family has gathered, the home first must be cleaned, which functions to purify the area for the arrival of the ancestor’s sprits. To feed the spirits, food offerings, mostly vegetables, fruits, and rice are placed at the butsudan throughout the three days of Obon.

The butsudan (a Buddhist altar) is an essential part to a traditional Japanese home, especially during Obon, being that it is the center of spiritual faith of the house. Positioned at the butsudan altar to help direct the spirits home are Lanterns, called chochin, and flower arrangements, called ikebana. Incense sticks are placed at the altar, which is thought to sooth and please the family’s ancestors and chase away malignant spirits. Praying at the butsudan alter is also done at this time, sometimes asking a Buddhist or Shinto priest to invite the spirits home.

It isn’t uncommon to also position a lantern with the family’s crest at the doorway (referred to as mukae-bi), to guide the souls to the right home. The family then will set out to their family’s shrine and do much of the same thing; using chochin lanterns to bring the spirits home (the term for this being mukae-bon). This work is implemented to show how grateful the family is for what their ancestors have given up and sacrificed during the time they were alive. Once the set up is accomplished, fun gatherings take place so the people may show their appreciation to their family’s ancestors.

Due to the sweltering summer heat in Japan, yukata or cotton Kimonos are worn to the carnival-like celebration. Takoyaki (rounded fried dough often containing octopus), fried squid and chicken, sushi, dango (tofu and rice dessert), manju (Japanese confectionary), chocolate-dipped bananas, and snow cones with red beans are just some of the common food items of the Obon festival. A variety of games are also a large feature of the celebration. These games vary anywhere from catching fish from a kiddy pool using a small net, to throwing rings at bottles for prizes.

Although the food and games have a significant role to play, the bon odori (Obon folk dance) is the pinnacle of the Obon gala. The bon odori dancing is done to welcome the spirits of the dead back to the living world. Different areas in Japan have different dances as well as unique songs to match them. Some songs have a pertinent spiritual significance to them and thusly, the bon odori will too. Hokkaido, far north of Japan, entertains with the folk song “Soran Bushi,” where in Kagoshima, the far south, uses the song “Ohara Bushi. Anyone may participate in this special dance, allowing those who do the ability to show thanks and joy to their ancestors. The Buddhist teachings, which has soaked Japan in its colours, preaches not the joy of getting what you want, but rather the bliss of awareness. Completing the celebratory festival, the souls must be sent back to the afterworld to rest peacefully. Toro nagashi, meaning floating lanterns, is the final tradition of the Japanese Obon. Once the sun begins to set, the people will take their family in-crested chochin lanterns to the water’s edge.

Lighting the lanterns, they send them off floating to the other side. The fire lit in these lanterns are said to guide the spirits wherever they go and here, they guide them back to the afterworld. Families that live by the coast, use the ocean as the sending place for toro nagashi, but for those not near the ocean will often use rivers or lakes to send off their ancestors. Regardless of which is used, this process of Obon is beautiful, but melancholy. Sending off the spirits of grandmothers, grandfathers, parents, wives, husbands, and children is often a very emotional process for the Japanese.

Each family, on land or on boat, will watch as their lanterns float farther and farther away. The glow of each lantern causing the water to look much like the starry sky, spotted with many warm lights. Those who participated in toro nagashi have a heightened awareness of the challenges and sacrifices their ancestors had to take. For centuries Obon has been a sacred gathering for the dead and the living to teach and celebrate the awareness appreciating another’s sacrifice brings.

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Japanese Obon Festival. (2018, Aug 08). Retrieved from

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