When: Mid-July in eastern Japan and mid-August in western Japan
O-bon 2012 is the Japanese version of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Both festivals actually originated in India and adapted cultural overtones when they crossed boundaries.
In the Japanese version, a Buddhist monk named Mokuren had a vision that his mother’s soul was not at peace because her bad deeds while alive. So the monk sought advice from his Guru who told him that he had to perform good deeds in his immediate community to make up for his mother’s sins of commission. After sometime of performing charitable work, Mokuren felt that his mother’s soul has now achieved peace, and he broke into a celebratory dance known as ‘bon odori.’
About the Event:
Obon 2012 is a yearly Buddhist event commemorating the family’s departed ancestors. The Japanese believe that on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, the spirits of their ancestors return to visit their living relatives. This is why the Japanese hang lanterns in front of their houses and on their ancestors’ graves to guide the spirits’ back home and welcome them to food offerings.
The first day of Obon starts with Japanese families cleaning their houses, offering food (usually fruits and vegetables) to the spirits on the ‘butsudan’ (Buddhist altar), and place flowers and Chochin lanterns by the graves or the altar.
The families then troop to the cemeteries to call their ancestors back home. On the last day, these spirits are accompanied back to the cemeteries. The lighted lanterns are then floated into rivers, lakes and seas to send off the spirits and light their paths back to the other realm.
On Obon nights, the ‘bon-odori’ is danced in parks, gardens, shrines or temples to the rhythm of taiko drums. The families wear summer kimonos and dance around a ‘yagura’ stage.
Despite its religious importance in Japan, Obon 2012 is not a national holiday. In the eastern part of Japan like Tokyo, Obon is celebrated on July 13-16 while in western regions like Kansai, Obon is celebrated August 13-15.
While Obon 2012 is not a mandated Japanese holiday, workers nonetheless celebrate this occasion with their families, which meant going on several days’ leave and going back to their home provinces. This poses tremendous challenges to logistics, and it is not unusual that Obon days are among the heaviest in traffic. Domestic flights are going to be very busy around August 11 and 12, and then August 15 to 16 when the Japanese go back to work in the big cities.
Obon 2012 is just another variant on an Asian recurring theme: devotion to family and respect for elders. Traveling to Japan on this occasion is an apt introduction not only to the Japanese regard for family, but to the Asians’ general attitude towards them.