The Importance of the Obon Festival for the Japanese

What is the Obon celebration?

The Obon celebration is one of the most important customs for the Japanese. Also known as Bon, this season is used to celebrate the spirits of a person’s ancestors. A custom introduced by the Buddhists to the Japanese, it is a holiday that brings the family together and reunites them with the dead. Members of the family take their time to go to the temples, pray for their ancestors’ souls, clean their loved ones’ graves.

It is believed that during Obon celebrations, the spirits of the dead go to their old homes and visit their family’s altars. To guide the spirits, most houses hang paper lanterns on their front doors. The family should also prepare food offerings in their household altar or the temples where their family members are laid to rest.

By 藤谷良秀 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It would only the family welcome these spirits but make sure that they return back to their resting place once the Obon celebrations are over. To make sure of this, the lanterns that are used to light the homes are then floated up to rivers, lakes or seas, as a means of guiding the spirits back to their resting place.

How does the Japanese deal with death?

It is common for some Oriental cultures to revere their ancestors’ souls quite highly. The Japanese believe that the spirit of their ancestors can be responsible for bringing them good fortune and long life as they can whisper to the gods favors for their living relatives.

This is why it is important for Japanese families to continuously honor and commemorate their loved ones who have already passed away. This is their means of introducing deceased family members to the younger generations of their family. It is a way of “ensuring” the continuity of the lineage of the family.

The Japanese are quite superstitious when it comes to death, especially during the earlier times. However, with the ongoing change in the attitudes of the Japanese, their practices that concern death has changed over the centuries.

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According to recent studies, it is discovered that there is an ever decreasing number of younger generation of Japanese that believe in the traditional arrangements for death and funerals. There is now a more diverse way of dealing with death, and somehow old traditions have started to pass away. Less and fewer people commemorate their ancestors and thus, celebrations and festivals like the Obon start to lose its old luster.

The History of Obon in Japan

The Obon festival originated from Buddhist customs that reached the Japanese shores during the earlier times. According to legends, one of Buddha’s disciples who has supernatural powers to save his mother’s spirit from suffering. He has asked for the help of Buddha for his worries. It is said that he was instructed to make offerings on the 15th day of the 7th month to Buddhist monks. This act has then released his mother from suffering. Out of his happiness, he danced with joy and this is where the custom of the “Bon Dance” originated.

When is the Obon Yasumi Celebrated?

It is important to remember that the Obon festival is celebrated at different times of the year in different parts of the country. It is more common to celebrate it during the 15th day of August and the celebrations last three days. However, there are some parts of the country like Tokyo and cities surrounding it celebrate it on the 15th of July. Other places like Okinawa use the lunar calendar as their basis. This means that there is no specific date for the Obon festivals, it will always fall on the 15th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar.

Since this is one of the three most important holidays in Japan, Obon week usually means that there is no work. Since it is summer, there is also no school. This means that a lot of locals in Japan are traveling during this time. Sometimes, to avoid the hustle and bustle of the travel season families choose to go to their family homes a weekend before or a Saturdays and Sundays after the 15th of August. They usually leave on a Friday and go back to work the following Monday.

For the Japanese, celebrating it not on the day itself is okay. Since it is quite a private and personal celebration which is only for the family they can choose to celebrate it a few days of the original date. This is as long as they make sure that they welcome their ancestors’ spirits and send them away again to the afterlife.

How is the Obon day celebrated in Japan?

The Obon Light

Known as a welcoming fire, people usually light up small flames in front of their homes on the first day of the Obon week. For the Japanese, they believe that this light will help guide the spirits of their ancestors and loved ones home. It is the light that the ancestors use to find where their family lives.

Since there is a danger of the fire that is set outside of the home, they have changed it to small lanterns which are hung near the door way. Nowadays, development in technology has changed these to electrified paper lanterns.

There are some places in Japan, on the other hand, that makes the welcome fire or obon light much more ceremonial. Sometimes, the town temple holds a massive fire lighting ceremony that will welcome back all the spirits of previous inhabitants of the town. In other places, families prefer putting up the lanterns on the grave site instead of the home.  

It is also common for certain parts of Japan to send away lanterns in bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and seas at the end of the Obon festivities. This is a means for the family to guide the spirits of their loved ones back to where they should be.

The Obon Dance

Along with the ceremonial lantern lighting or welcoming fire, towns usually perform elaborate dances known as the Obon Odori. This particular dance, according to legends, is performed as a means of expressing joy and happiness that the ancestors are free from suffering.

The odori varies from region to region and it involves intricately performed traditional dances. Usually, it is performed around what is called a yagura, which is a platform where the music is being produced. It is common to see a person singing at the center of this platform while other people play instruments simultaneously. This kind of music is known as Ondo or Japanese folk music.

Dancers dance in small circles around the yagura. There is no specific set of steps that are performed on a national level, each region around Japan has a dance routine of their own. One popular odori dance would be the Tank Bushi or the Coal Mining Song of Kyushu, which is known at a national level.

The Offerings

There are special delicacies which are served during Obon season. These food offerings are known as ozen or food shared with the dead. These usually include typical food such as rice, tea, fruit, and sweets. Usually, sweets which are served during Obon are shaped like lotus leaves which are a popular Buddhist symbol.

The Grave Visit

After the rituals and ceremonies at home, the family usually goes to the grave site to visit the resting place of their family members. It is a common ritual to bring a pail of water and a ladle to “clean” the grave. Others also use brushes to clear away molds and dirt from the stone heads.

This ritual is a means of showing care for the loved one and a means of showing respect for ancestors. Annual cleaning of the graves is a means of maintaining the grave site as well. The problem, on the other hand, is the fact that this ritualistic cleaning has started to die off from the younger generations. This is due to the fact that land can be quite expensive and family members choose to cremate their loved ones and lay them to rest in columbariums.  

What to remember during Obon Season

The Dreaded Traffic

During this time of the year, most businesses are closed to allow workers and employees to be with their family to celebrate the festivities. It is important to note that the Japanese do not get that much lengthy holidays. This means that a great number of people are traveling during this time. Since it is summertime, all the students are also out of school. This means that there is a great number of local and foreign travelers going around Japan during this time.

A lot of foreign travelers wish that not to travel to Japan during the second and third weeks of August because of this reason. It is hard to get seats on trains and planes. Because of this locals tend to rent their own vehicles and drive home, leaving major roads jammed with heavy traffic. 

Hotels are expensive and fully booked, and most tourist destinations are completely packed. Finding parking spaces in tourist destinations, restaurants, and the like might be close to impossible. However, it is also important to note that major cities are most usually deserted at this time. Most business hotels are also almost empty.

Places to Avoid

Obon week is one of the three longest holidays in Japan (including New Year’s in January). It is also one of the very few holidays where the Japanese are allowed to go home and rest. This is also one of the only holidays of the year that falls on a summer time when students are all out of school.

Because of these events, there is a large influx of local travelers that are in different tourist destinations during this time. Since the Japanese use this time to go to their ancestral family homes, a huge percentage of the Japanese population travel to the countryside. It is best to avoid these places at this time because of the difficulty of almost all means of transportation.

It is also recommendable to avoid popular tourist destinations like the Tokyo Sky Tree, Tokyo Disneyland, and the like. This is the time when both local and foreign tourists take the time to enjoy these destinations as well. The queues to the rides would surely be a nightmare.

How to celebrate as a foreign traveler

The Obon Matsuri is a celebration which is close to the hearts of the Japanese people. Since it involves family, it is a personal and private celebration. However, there are festivities like lantern displays, lantern events, dances, musicals and much more during the Obon celebrations. Although foreigners do not have family in Japan, they can surely join in the celebration of the masses. They can join the colorful parades.

Maybe if foreign travelers have friends who have families living locally, it might be a great experience to join in their Obon rituals up close. This is a good way to realize the role of the ancestors in the daily lives of Japanese families. Of course, on the presumption that it is okay with the family to invite friends over.

What’s the Latest: Obon in Japan 2017

Obon is celebrated not only in Japan but in different parts of the world as well. It has been celebrated in many parts of the world during the month of July. This is to ensure that Japanese migrants, especially the younger generation, never forget their traditions and customs. It is also a means for communities to remind their youth to not forget the importance of respecting the spirits of their ancestors.

Oftentimes, it is also a means of teaching other cultures about the customs and traditions of Japan. Places such as Stockton and Oakland has already celebrated Obon in late July. On the other hand, it is just a simple cultural holiday in different parts of the world outside of Japan.