Obon, A Japanese Tradition Honoring The Ancestors’ Spirits

The bonodori is a spiritual dance to welcome the spirits. Every region has a local dance and a different music.

Posted by on August 12, 2017 – Japanese Study
Obon

Have you heard about the 500 years old Japanese tradition called obon? Very similar to the Western Halloween, this holiday is called the Festival of the Dead and is one of the most important Japanese Buddhist custom.

The Japanese believe the spirits of the dead come back to visit the living and need to be honored. Obon usually takes place between August 13th – 15th, although the starting date depends on the region.

The first & last days of Obon

On the first day of Obon, Japanese families will usually clean their houses and prepare food offerings for their past relatives, called ozen (お(ぜん)). The main offerings are fruit, rice, green tea, sake and some special lotus shaped sweets.

They will also set out paper lanterns (提灯(ちょうちん), chouchin) called mukaebi ((むか)()) to guide the spirits back to their homes. Another custom is to carry the lanterns to the graves in order to call their ancestors back home.

Finally, after 3 days of celebration, spirits must be sent back to their grave. Once again, special lanterns will be lit, called “okuribi” ((おく)()). In some region, people will also float paper lanterns down the river.

A Celebration To Honor the Dead

Despite being an important custom in Japan, obon is not a national holiday. Many people will still take vacations in order to visit the graves of the family’s ancestors. The ritual is called ohakamairi (御墓参(ごはかまい)り) and consists into cleaning the graves with water to wash away any dirt or stains.

Bonodori: A Dance to Welcome The Dead

The bonodori is a spiritual dance to welcome the spirits. Every region has a local dance and a different music. Most of the time, the dancers are moving in a large circle around a yagura ((やぐら)), a central platform where musicians play traditional instruments. Among the various styles, the most famous one is called awa odori and is performed in the street.