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Obon — Japanese Festival of the Dead: The Bon Buddhist Summer Holiday of Japan

Published by Darius Wieser

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The Bon Festival or Obon, is a Japanese Buddhist tradition which honors the dead ancestors each summer. Like America’s Memorial Day and Mexico’s Day of the Dead, people focus on their loved ones who have passed away, joining with other family members and holding reunions, visiting and caring for gravesites, and welcoming the dead spirits home.

Obon is a demonstration of filial piety, a respect held for one’s parents and ancestors. The Buddha often told Ananda, one of his principal disciples: “The weight of obligation we owe to our parents is as boundless as the heavens.”

Obon generally lasts for three days, with most outdoor festivities taking place in the evening when the spirits are most active. The spirits are believed to return to visit their descendents and the family altars in homes during Obon.

History of Obon

Obon has been a tradition in Japan for over 500 years. The term Obon, or Urabon in Japanese comes from the Sanskrit word Ullambana, which in the Buddhist tradition signifies unbearable suffering of spirits by being hung upside down. The Japanese try to amend this suffering with their ancestor worship rituals.

To prepare for the return of the ancestor spirits, the graves are cleaned, and a spirit altar (shoryodana) is set up in the home in front of the family Butsudan to welcome the ancestors’ spirits. A Butsudan is an altar for Buddhist ancestor worship in the home at which offerings and prayers are made. A priest is sometimes asked to come to the home and read a Buddhist sutra for the occasion. Part of the Obon custom is to make offerings to Buddhist monks during the festival time.

Families may also provide straw horses or oxen for the ancestors’ transportation to their earthly home. There is a welcoming bonfire (mukaebi) built at the beginning of the festival, and a send-off bonfire (okuribi) built on the last day of the festival to help to light the path to and from their spirit homes.

The end of the festival is celebrated by sending paper lanterns down a river lighting the way for the return of the spirits to their spirit homes and signifying the end of their annual earthly visit. Fireworks are also usually displayed.

Obon Odori Custom of Group Line Dance

The Urabon Sutra tells of one disciple of the Buddha, Mokuren, who was grieving for his dead mother who he had a vision of in the World of Hungry Ghosts. She was unhappy and suffering in the spirit world and this greatly grieved Mokuren. The Buddha advised Mokuren to go and give offerings to the Buddhist monks and his mother would be assisted.

Mokuren did as the Buddha instructed and then envisioned his mother being released from her unhappy state and saw the true nature of her many sacrifices for him. His mother was able to become a Buddha through his efforts. Mokuren danced with joy, and this became the beginning of the tradition of dancing, or odori in Japanese, at the Bon festivals.

Obon Odori displays the gratitude one feels towards the ancestors. It is performed with happy Japanese folk music. The dance and the accompanying music vary greatly by region. Individual dance movements may represent regional history and culture, depicting typical symbols of work and other traditions of the area. Dancers line up and perform the movements in unison.

Obon dancers are usually dressed in the traditional, simple summer kimono, the yukata. The people attending the performance are also encouraged to join in with the line dancing.

The Obon Odori custom of dancing tied to the summer ancestor celebration began from the 15th to 16th centuries as a form of public entertainment during the Muromachi Period.

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