Usually called Obon, but also known as O-Bon or simply Bon, the Japanese Obon Festival is the one of the most well known Buddhist festivals. The celebration is meant to honor the departed spirits of one’s ancestors. Some call Obon the “Feast of Lanterns”, due to the lighting of candles and lanterns that is part of the ceremony. There is also a special dance, called the Bon-Odori, which is performed specifically for this ceremony. Most Japanese people celebrate the festival by caring for the graves of family members.
Obon is observed each year on July 13th, which is when Buddhist theology says that the souls of the departed rejoin their families for three days. The celebration has important religious components, including prayers that are offered to help the departed find their way in the afterlife. Celebrants recognize the sacrifices of both their living family and their ancestors through prayers and celebrations. Some people compare Obon with the Mexican celebration of the “Day of the Dead”. To learn more about this festival and others in Japan, I recommend getting the Lonely Planet Japan Travel Guide.
The history of Obon is hard to track, but it is widely recognized as having been practiced since at least the 7th century AD. While many parts of the festival have changed in name and practice, there are also many parts of the celebration that are practiced according to ancient tradition. For example, families will clean their homes during the festival and create a plate of special foods (often fruits and vegetables) which are placed on the Buddhist family alter known as a butsudan. The alter is also decorated with flowers and beautiful paper lanterns called couchin along with other offerings. Many families also participate in family reunions during Obon, and young people often return from bigger cities to their small home towns to spend time with their families, care for the graves of ancestors, and leave offerings for family members who have passed on.
The Bon-Odori dance that is performed as part of the festival comes from a story about a disciple of Buddha called Mokuren. Mokuren used his special powers to look into the afterlife to check on his mother who was suffering after she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Mokuren went to Buddha and asked how he could end his mother’s suffering, and Buddha told him to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had returned from their retreat on the 15th day of the seventh month of the year. After Mokuren had made these offerings, his mother was released from her suffering and was so happy that she danced with joy, thankful that her son understood the love that she had given him in the past. The Bon-Odori dance gets it name from this dance, and the dance is performed during the Obon festival to show appreciation and love that is felt for one’s ancestors. The exact dance varies from area to area, reflecting the history of that specific area and dancers will use different fans or wooden clappers to create rhythms for the dance.
Floating paper lanterns called Toro Nagashi are another important part of Obon. On July 15th, people gather by the riverside and release a small, floating paper lantern that represents a departed ancestor into the water. As the individual lanterns join together in the water, they create a beautiful sight as they travel together toward the sea. Obon is a festival that celebrates the importance of family, home, and tradition, and many Japanese people see it as a time to renew these connections.