Obon, also known as Bon Festival, is an event that stems from ancient Buddhist customs. As one of the primary religions in Japan, this is one of the most well-known Japanese holidays around the world.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is Obon Festival?
- When Is Obon Festival?
- Who Typically Celebrates the Obon Festival?
- How Is Obon Festival Celebrated?
- How Else Are the Dead Celebrated in Japan?
Obon is a festival that focuses on remembering family members. Ancestors’ spirits return to the world of the living to visit with loved ones during this festival, and Japanese people celebrate their arrival.
While it might seem like the return of the dead is a somber, scary occasion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In Japan, this is an exciting celebration marked by large family reunions, bright lanterns, and fun community events. In this guide, we’ll share how and where to celebrate the Obon Festival this year.
What Is the Obon Festival?
There is a lot of surprising overlap between death in different cultures. From the Day of the Dead in Latin America to Gai Jatra in Nepal, people all over the world honor their ancestors during special occasions.
The Obon festival is one of these occasions, and it’s a chance for families to come together over shared memories of those who came before them.
The history behind the Obon festival isn’t entirely clear. Though the festival is over 500 years old, it’s origin isn’t straightforward. The ritual of welcoming deceased ancestors’ spirits into the home is believed to have come from India. After spreading through China and South Asia, it eventually arrived in Japan.
In the original story, a disciple of Buddha uses his supernatural powers to talk to his deceased mother. He found his mother in the ‘Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” In Buddhism, this term refers to any supernatural being that has an insatiable hunger for a particular thing. Learning this news, the disciple became distressed. He talked to the Buddha about how to best free his mother from this fate.
Buddha told the disciple to prepare offerings for monks to free his mother from her fate. In Japanese, the term ‘Obon’ is a translation of a Sanskrit word that means ‘to hang upside down.’ This isn’t meant literally. Instead, it’s a way to imply pain and suffering of spirits.
As such, the entire goal of the Obon Festival is to free ancestors from their pain in the spirit realm.
Where it’s celebrated
Japan celebrates the Obon Festival in all major cities. The most spectacular of celebrations are in Tokushima, Kyoto, and Nagasaki. These are popular travel destinations for anyone looking to connect with Japanese traditions or even bring peace to their own ancestors.
As mentioned before, this festival originated in India and spread to Japan. Because of this, you’ll find Obon Festivals in other countries of the world, though often by another name. In China and Vietnam, for example, a similar celebration takes place, but it’s called the Ghost Festival. Obon Festivals also occur in Malaysia and Korea, though by different names.
Since there are Japanese communities across the world, it’s not uncommon to find large Obon Festival events in major U.S. cities. The most well-known Obon Festivals are held in Los Angeles, Charlotte, San Diego, Philadelphia, Oakland, and St. Paul.
When Is the Obon Festival?
Obon takes place over three days and is usually observed in mid-August. While the date is traditionally observed from the 13 to the 15 days of the year’s seventh month,
it’s not always the same. Because the lunar calendar was formerly used, this event usually falls in August, but it can also fall in July.
Who Typically Celebrates the Obon Festival?
With that in mind, who celebrates the Obon festival? This festival is about honoring one’s ancestors, and it’s traditionally celebrated by people in Japan. Because this festival ties together both Buddhism and Shintoism, it plays a large role in Japanese culture.
That being said, you’ll also find Obon celebrated in other parts of the globe. It’s practiced by anyone who identifies with Buddhism, Shintoism, and Japanese culture. With growing Japanese populations around the world, it’s common for local groups to have their own celebrations during Obon.
You’ll find celebrations in North America, across Asia, and in other parts of the world during what’s known as Obon Season. Though this is a Buddhist festival, all are welcome to join as a way to honor their ancestors.
It’s important to note that many of these traditions and customers are adapted from similar Chinese customs. That’s why you’ll discover many similar festivities in China and across Asia. Obon is a uniquely Japanese festival that borrows from the rich traditions of the East.
How Is the Obon Festival Celebrated?
The Obon Festival is an exciting celebration, and it’s normal to see lively festivities across Japanese cities. This is a time for people to come together, travel home, and welcome their deceased ancestors with open arms.
This is the time of year when the deceased come back to their family’s altars and graves. These ancestors are enshrined in these graves, and this is where they rest—even if they’re no longer in this realm.
Visiting graveyards is common in Japan, and many people use this as an opportunity to talk to ancestors and report to them about family news.
During the Obon season, visiting graves is even more common. The family not only visits the grave, but they also polish and clean the space. This involves prayers and the careful washing of the tombstone.
Families offer the deceased’s favorite foods and flowers are left by the grave. Many families also pray together over incense. While people certainly visit graves outside of Obon season, this time of year is when it’s most important.
Another tradition begins before the start of the holiday. In Japan, cleaning plays a large role in Buddhist funerals. Cleaning the home after a death removes any negative energy or spirits. The same is true during the Obon season.
People in Japan clean their homes and offer food and other offerings to the spirits at their home altar. Paper lanterns are lit inside the house, and these lanterns are then brought to the family’s graves as a way to call the spirits back home.
The lanterns are a symbol of a light that guides the ancestors’ spirits to the home. The freshly cleaned home is a pure space for ancestors to enjoy.
Dances and songs
On the second day of the Obon Festival, it’s time for dances and songs. A traditional folk dance known as Bon Odori takes place on this second day. While each local area has its own unique take on this folk dance, it typically includes a Japanese taiko drum and traditional dance. This type of dance began as a way to welcome the spirits of the dead, and it still serves this purpose today.
This dance is easy to recognize. People line up in a circle around a wooden platform or scaffold that’s made just for the festival. This is where the band or singers play. These dances and songs take place at parks, gardens, temples, and shrines.
Dancers perform around the platform, moving in a counter-clockwise motion. The dancers’ movements reflect the local tradition and folk dances, and not all dancers move in the same way.
Believe it or not, Bon Odori isn’t limited to Obon Festival music. Sometimes modern hits are played during Obon season, and this is changing every year. In most celebrations, anyone is free to join the dancers no matter their experience level. In some parts of Japan, these dances last all night.
The dancers and singers work together to celebrate and welcome these spirits of the dead.
Food and drink
Since food and drinks are such an important part of the Japanese funeral tradition, it’s no surprise that these also play a role in the Japanese festival honoring these deceased relatives. All Japanese celebrations include special, traditional foods, and these vary depending on the location you’re in.
Aside from the food offered at the shrines of deceased ancestors, you’ll also find endless street food stalls. Popular foods are fried noodles, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and yakitori.
Enjoying family meals and eating together as a community is an important way for people to feel connected during this special time of year.
On the final day of the Obon Festival, families help their ancestors’ spirits return to the grave. They do this by hanging lanterns with their family crest as a guide. In some parts of Japan, people release floating lanterns into the sky or down a river.
These eventually burn out, but they’re symbolic of a send-off of these loved spirits into another realm.
How Else Are the Dead Celebrated in Japan?
In Japan, it’s important to honor one’s ancestors. The dead in Japan are treated with great respect, and this all begins with Japanese funeral traditions. Commemorative rites honoring the dead are displayed at home, temples, and gravesites. Here are some of the most important ways the dead are celebrating in Japan all year long.
In Japanese culture, a butsudan is a family altar. These are Buddhist altars traditionally found in the home on Kamidana altars, also known as “god-shelves.” While they pay respect to Buddhist divinities, there are also memorial tablets for ancestors.
These altars are frequently used all year long. They’re lit with candles and incense, and flowers are offered regularly as a sign of respect. Though altars to the dead have been commonplace in Buddhism for thousands of years, they didn’t become mainstream in homes until the 17th century. Today, modern Japanese homes include a smaller, simpler version of a butsudan.
Another way the Japanese honor the dead is through death anniversaries. In many cultures, it’s important to take the time to honor dead loved ones even after the funeral. In Japan, these rituals take place seven days, 49 days, and 100 days after the death of a family member. Purification festivals are done during these times to honor the dead and keep their spirit alive.
During these times, offerings are made at family altars. Families also visit the graves of loved ones and bring items to leave at the grave. These small acts are believed to bring prosperity in the Buddhist afterlife.
The Japanese are also regimented in how they honor the recently deceased. It’s important to complete a 20-step process to honor those who recently passed through a cremation and funeral service. The body is cleansed and prepared for cremation, and the family takes great care to honor their family member each step of the way.
During the Japanese funeral service, the deceased receives a new Buddhist name for the afterlife. Before the individual is cremated, the family places flowers around the dead. The family often watches the body enter the crematorium, and they return after the service to sort through the ashes. Each step of the process is meticulously completed, and it’s important for the family to take their time.
At the end of the process, the urn is given to the family for safekeeping. They might place it at home in an altar, within a temple, or divide it amongst other family members. Though these traditions might seem excessive to outsiders, they connect the Japanese people with their ancestors.
Celebrate the Festival of Souls
The Obon Festival is a unique Japanese Buddhist custom that honors the spirits of one’s ancestors. This family reunion holiday is rich in cultural traditions and practices. From the famous paper lanterns to folk dances, there’s a lot to explore about the Obon Festival.
Taking a few days out of the year to honor deceased relatives isn’t unique to Japan, but the Japanese people put their own historical and cultural twist on this practice. If there’s one thing to learn, it’s that reflecting on death brings people closer to life. Start end-of-life planning yourself to craft your own memory and legacy.
Want to learn more about festivals that celebrate ancestors? Read our guide on China's Hungry Ghost Festival.
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- “Maudgalyayana Saves His Mother.” Shaolin Temple. 21 May 2015. Shaolin.org.cn.
- Uyema, Fiona. “Spirits and Street Food at Obon — The Japanese ‘Festival of Souls.’” The Taste. TheTaste.ie.