The Obon Festival: How Japanese Honor Their Ancestors

Photo: Guilhem Vellut

The Obon Festival: How Japanese Honor Their Ancestors

Steven Askew

If you are in Japan during the summer, chances are you will happen across a group of people celebrating Obon. It is primarily a time to honor one’s ancestors, but has also become an opportunity to visit relatives and generally relax. Depending on where you are, Obon could either be in July or in August. This is due to not every area of Japan accepting the move to the Gregorian calendar at the start of the Meiji era. Roughly speaking, the Tokyo and eastern side of Japan celebrate it in July and most other areas celebrate it in August.

Obon comes from the word urabone, which means hanging upside down, and suggests great suffering for the ancestors. The living relatives have an obligation to ease their ancestors' suffering. They do this by making offerings and cleaning the family grave or shrine, and then by dancing to welcome the spirits of the dead.

Japanese cemeteries can be huge places that spread over many hectares. Row upon row of almost identical grave stones will greet you.

The main cemetery near me also has Stonehenge, Moai and many other artifacts. Large edifices built of concrete. Nobody I have asked so far appears to know why. This may not spread all across Japan.

At Obon, there will be lines of cars driving in. If you have the chance, and if it doesn’t feel too strange, take a look. You will see families meeting around their family grave. They will collect water in a bucket from a central tap.

Once at the grave, they will weed and then the grave must be washed from top to bottom.

After that is done and everything is tidy, fresh flowers are inserted in the fixed metal holders. Incense is lit and an offering of fruit and maybe beer is placed on a ledge.

At this time of year, you can buy packs of food intended as offerings and special flowers in most supermarkets.

As a side note, certain flowers are only displayed on tombs, never given as gifts. I did not know this when I first arrived in Japan and quite innocently gave my future wife what I thought was a nice bouquet of flowers. Luckily (?) her grandfather had just passed on and the family assumed it was a nice gesture on my part.

After all the cleaning and beautifying is complete, each member of the family prays before the grave, then the food is removed (you cannot leave it because of crows), the rubbish thrown, the buckets emptied and the family head off for lunch somewhere.

There are also cemeteries reserved for pets. In these, you don’t buy a gravestone, but have your pet's ashes interned in a central tomb. At Obon, you leave some pet food and pray.

The Obon dance is a much more fun filled occasion. If you are traveling with small children you will enjoy it a lot. It is a good chance to tire them out before bedtime, get some free snacks, and maybe find yourself a beer. Most small parks will have some kind of festival, organized by each local neighborhood association, and if you can’t find one, head out just before dusk and listen. You will soon hear the da da da daah of the taiko drums. When you get there, you will see hundreds of people in beautiful yukata dancing in a ring around a central tower. At the top of the tower a team of taiko drummers will be taking it in turns to keep up the rhythm. You will soon pick the dance up and it goes on for about an hour, sometimes two. When it finishes, all of the children receive some kind of snack. Most of these festivals have some kind of food and beer and that is where the adults get their rewards.

Even if you are not into dancing, Obon is a great chance to see Japanese culture.