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Japan’s Obon Festival: The Festival of the Dead

Japan’s Obon Festival: The Festival of the Dead

What would we do without Japan? It is so widely known for many things that have left a strong impact on the Western world. This small country is home to anime, sushi, Hello Kitty, and so much more, the list could go on and on. However, the thought of Japan also being home to a ‘Festival of the Dead’ is probably not one of of those thoughts, is it?. Also known as the ‘Festival of the Souls,’ the ‘Obon Festival’ is an annual Buddhist celebration that allows the Japanese to give honour to the return of the spirits of their ancestors. It is a three day festival celebrated on the 7th month of the solar calendar, from the 13th day to the 15th day. Different regions across Japan will be taking part in this festivity in different months due to differences in the usage of certain calendars. Regions that will celebrate Obon in July are those that use the lunar calendar as opposed to those like Tokyo that will celebrate it in August, who use the Gregorian calendar. Obon is not official nationwide holiday like Christmas is in North America and the most part of Europe, but many most businesses or companies are closed so that everyone can enjoy the festivities with their friends and families.  

Although this event is heavily focused on festivities, its roots remain very prevalent, so let’s get into the religious and cultural background of Obon. As stated before, this festival is meant to celebrate the return of ancestors’ spirits primarily by Buddhists, but the Japanese as vast majority of people believe in the great interconnection of all things that exists on Earth-including spirits of the dead. Whether it be just a few months ago or thousands of years ago, the Japanese culture places much respect towards those that have lived before them and Obon give them an opportunity to recognize them.   

 

Though the aspect of death is rather saddening, Obon is not a time when the Japanese sit around and mourn! Rather, they welcome the spirits of their ancestors with dance which is the highlight of this three day celebration. There is a specific folk dance called ‘bon odori’ which was created centuries ago but is still performed during the nights of Obon today. Friends and family dance to Japanese taiko drum beats and dress in traditional clothing such as a yukata. These dances are held in park, gardens, shrines temples and everyone is invited to join and let loose in the rhythm.

Not only are they bright and absolutely beautiful, the role of lanterns plays a large role in the Obon festival. Bright chochin lanterns are set inside the house which is meant to guide spirits of people’s ancestors to their home, also known as mukae-bon. If it is the first Obon after a family member’s death, cochin lanterns are left outside. Other people go to their family’s grave and have a mukae-bi, which are welcome fires for the same purpose of guiding spirits to their homes. Japanese people’s houses are also thoroughly cleaned and various food offerings such as fruit, rice, and green tea are placed in front of a butsudan, a Buddhist altar. The idea behind placing food by the altar is to honour their ancestors  by treating them as if they were still alive. By the butsudan are also gorgeous flower arrangements as well as more chochin lanterns. At the conclusion of this three day event, a process called okuri-bon takes place. Okuri-bon is when people hang up chochin lanterns with the family crest painted on it in order to lead their ancestor’s spirits back to their grave. Many also leave a toro nagashi which are floating lanterns in a river with a lit candle inside to send off their ancestors’ spirits.

The Obon festival is truly an astonishing festival. From the respect that the Japanese have to those that have passed before them, the gorgeous floating lanterns, to the traditional  bon odori dance, there is beauty in every single aspect of this event. Acting as a way for people to give their prayers to their ancestors while also being an incredibly colourful, fun and cultural celebration for families and friends, the Obon festival is a very important tradition for the Japanese.It is important to note though, that Obon festivals do not only occur in Japan but also around the world for those Japanese that have immigrated elsewhere. From the US and Canada to South America and Asia, festivals are surely to take place in your area so make sure you do some research to experience Japanese culture at its finest and the breathtaking experience that is Obon!

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