Celebrating the Dead in Japan

by M-Gillies

Japanese volunteers place candle-lit lanterns into the Sasebo River during Japan's annual summer Obon festival. The Bon or Obon festival originated in the 7th century, and is held to honor the spirits of ancestors and of loved ones who have passed away.

The Japanese are known for many things: whether it be their advancements in science and technology, their towering and futuristic structures or their art, which encompasses various styles of mediums including pottery, wood and bronze sculptures or the popularity of manga cartoons. Aside from these innovative niches, the Japanese are also known for something a little more sentimental: their traditions for remembering the dead.

Obon, or Bon is a Japanese Buddhist tradition celebrated between August 13 to the 15, which commemorates the spirits of their ancestors. The Japanese believe that the spirits come back to their homes to be reunited with their family during the time of Obon and is considered a very sacred and important time during the year.

Obon, shortened from Ullambana originated when a disciple of the Buddha used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother, only to discover that she had fallen into the realm of hungry ghosts. Disturbed by the suffering his mother was enduring, the disciple went to the Buddha for guidance on how to release his mother from such suffering. The Buddha advised his disciple to practice compassion and give offerings to monks, and upon doing so, the disciple saw the release of his mother.

After his mother’s release from the realm of hungry ghosts, the disciple learnt of his mother’s selflessness and the sacrifices she made for him. Because of her kindness while he was young, the disciple, danced with joy as gratitude. It was through this dance that bon odori or bon dance occured, this dance became the signature performance during Obon and signifies a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated by their decedents.

To mark the first day of Obon, lanterns are lit and hung in front of houses to guide the ancestors’ spirits back home. Graves are visited and food offerings are made at house altars and temples. On the final day of Obon, people bring the spirits of their ancestors back to the grave, in some regions paper lanterns are hung in cemeteries with family crests painted on them, while in other parts floating lanterns are placed in rivers, lakes and seas.

Throughout Obon, the aroma of Japanese incense sticks can be found within houses and cemeteries. However, it is during this time that Japanese residents attend neighborhood Bon Odori festivities in parks, gardens, shrines and temples wearing summer kimonos.

While Obon isn’t a national Japanese holiday, its popularity sees many people taking vacation during this time of year to visit their hometowns.

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