Japanese Culture Teaching Notes



The Obon (Bon Odori) is a Japanese Buddhist feast period, and traditional dance festival, which has existed for more than 500 years. It is held from 13th of July to the 16th ("Welcoming Obon" and "Farewell Obon" respectively) in the eastern part of Japan (Kanto), and in August in the western part (Kansai). This is comparable to the Day of the Dead or Halloween.

Obon is traditionally celebrated from the 13th to the 15th day of the 7th month of the year, which is July according to the solar calendar. However, since the 7th month of the year roughly coincides with August rather than July according to the formerly used lunar calendar, Obon is still celebrated in mid August in many regions of Japan, while it is celebrated in mid July in other regions.

This Buddhist festival has been transformed into a family reunion holiday during which folk return to their home towns and visit and clean their ancestors' burying ground. Japanese people tend to think that this festival has something to do with religion and the souls of their ancestors, but this interpretation is often wrong. It is said that this tradition first began a few hundred years ago when youngsters of those times did not have any particular entertainment. It is customary to fashion horses and cows out of cucumbers and eggplants. This is done to facilitate the return of the dead.

On the 16th, people bring the ancestor's spirits back to ohaka, hanging chouchins painted with the family crest to guide the ancestors' spirits. In some regions, fires called okuribi are lit at entrances of homes to send the ancestors' spirits. The air in houses and cemeteries are full of smoke and the smell of incense called senko at this time.

The Bon Odori festival is well known all over the country, and every prefecture has different ways of celebrating it. Each prefecture has its own ways of dancing and its own music to go with it. A Bon Odori in Okayama prefecture will be completely different from one in Kanagawa prefecture. There are many kinds of music that go with the dance. The music varies from classical music to Japanese traditional music such as the Makkou Onndo.

Bon Odori was first recorded in late fifteenth century literature. Bon Odori is performed by large groups of men, women and children of all ages. They dance to music in a circle around the Yagura (a standing stage) wearing Yukata (summer kimono). Each location has its own style of Bon Odori. Nowadays, many booths are set up by the Bon Odori stage. They sell sweets, drinks toys and other interesting things. It is fun for not only children but adults to browse those booths.

There is also Toro Nagashi, or floating paper lanterns, that have lighted candles inside. The lanterns are floated on a river at the end of Obon to guide the ancestors' spirits to their world.

Obon is a shortened form of the legendary Indian Urabonne/Urabanna. (A Sanskrit word for "hanging upside down in hell and suffering"). The Japanese believe they should relieve the suffering of the "Urabanna".

In the time of Shaka; one of his fellows, Mokuren, saw the image of his dead mother suffering in hell. Mokuren was desperate to relieve her pain and asked Shaka for help. Shaka answered, "On 15th of July, provide a big feast for the past seven generations of dead. Mokuren did as he was told, and thankfully, his mother's suffering was relieved. This is the inception of the tradition.

Posted by ・Andrea :: 11:02 PM :: 2 Comments:

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