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Death around the world: Obon, Japan

Dancers at the Obon festival in Japan

Japanese women joining in the Bon Odori dance for Obon. Photo by Rosino via Wikimedia Commons.

In Japan, honouring the spirits of departed ancestors is a cause for celebration. Each summer, Japan has a three-day national holiday dedicated to remembering family members who have died in a festival known as Obon or Bon.

The Obon festival is all about honouring the dead, whether they were close relatives or ancient ancestors. It is a Buddhist holiday, which has been celebrated in Japan for around 500 years. These three days are when the spirits of the dead are said to return from the afterlife to visit their descendants.

The story behind the Buddhist festival of Obon began with a man named Maha Maudgalyayana, a disciple of Buddha. Grieving deeply after the death of his mother, Maha used his spiritual powers to see her in the afterlife. What he saw did not comfort him – she had mistakenly fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a place inhabited by the spirits of greedy and selfish humans who had been turned into ravenous monsters.

Distraught at his mother’s suffering in the afterlife, Maha spoke to Buddha, asking him how he could free his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed Maha to make offerings to the monks who had just completed their summer retreat.

Scroll of Hungry Ghosts with illustrations of Buddha and Maha The Scroll of Hungry Ghosts, from around 800 AD, shows Maha begging the Buddha for advice after seeing the spirit of his mother.

Maha did what Buddha commanded and his mother was released. Maha now understood all the sacrifices his mother had made for him and her true acts of selflessness. Overjoyed by her selfless love and her liberation from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Maha danced with happiness.

The story of Maha Maudgalyayana reminds people celebrating Obon to appreciate the gifts given to them by their ancestors and their family. This is why Obon is also traditionally a time for family reunions. Adult children often return to their family homes to be with their parents and relatives.

Japanese families also make altars in their homes for the returning spirits of ancestors in a tradition similar to the Mexican tradition of ofrendas during Day of the Dead, Offerings of food, flowers and incense are placed on the altar, as well as courgettes and aubergines carved or modelled in the shape of horses and cows, known as kyuri uma and nasu ushi. It is believed that the spirits can use these animals to journey back to the afterlife once Obon is complete.

Traditional Obon altar in a Japanese family home A traditional altar for offerings to the spirits, with kyuri uma on the left and nasu ushi on the right. Photo by Kazuhiro Kimura.

Fire and light are symbolically important during Obon. Japanese families may hang paper lanterns outside their houses to light the way for the returning spirits. At the end of the festival, families help the spirits go back to the afterlife with a guiding fire, known as Okuribi. This special guiding light often takes the form of a floating paper lantern, which is placed onto a river, lake or the sea. Often whole communities will gather in a park or on the riverbanks to release Okuribi together, creating a river of floating lights.

Hundreds of small paper lanterns floating on a lake at night Okuribi on Lake Shinji, Matsue, marking the end of Obon and the departure of ancestors' spirits. Photo by James Alexander Jack.

Over the course of the three days, Japanese families will return to the graves of their ancestors and relatives. The graves will be cleaned and sometimes offered food or flowers.

Maha’s dance of joy is also remembered during Obon. The Bon Odori dance is performed in towns and cities all over Japan. Usually a wooden scaffold or stage is built in a public place like a town square. Known as a yagura, the stage is where singers and musicians perform traditional songs while members of the community gather to dance the Bon Odori.

Yagura decorated in red paper lanterns, surrounded by a crowd of people dancing the Bon Odori Local families dance the Bon Odori around the yagura while musicians play traditional songs. Photo by Guilhem Vellut.

Each region has a different variation of the Bon Odori dance, with different moves and ways of performing it. Often the dancers will move in a circular pattern around the yagura, or sometimes the dance will form a procession, moving through the streets of the town.

Obon is about honouring your ancestors and reflecting upon the sacrifices made by them for their family. However, it is also a time for joyous celebration. Just like Maha’s dancing, families all over Japan join together in a dance of joy and thankfulness.

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