5 Things to Know About Obon: Japan’s Buddhist Festival of the Dead

5 Things to Know About Obon: Japan’s Buddhist Festival of the Dead

Obon Festival (お盆) is one of multiple Buddhist holidays celebrated throughout the year. Obon, or “Bon” as it is also known, is a 3-day lantern festival celebrated annually in mid-August across Japan that celebrates one’s ancestors.

  • Obon is a uniquely Japanese Buddhist holiday
  • The Obon holiday is only celebrated in Japan- the home of Japanese Zen Buddhism. This branch of Mahayana Buddhism developed from Chinese Chan Buddhism. A little less than half of the population of Japan identifies as Buddhist, making it the second most common religion in Japan after Shinto. With millions of followers of the religion, Buddhist holidays are large and important events for the Japanese people.

  • The date depends on the region in Japan
  • The official annual dates for Obon are August 13th- 15th but some regions of Japan celebrate it in mid-July. This is due to differences between the solar and lunar calendars that certain regions choose to follow. Although there is some uncertainty about the precise origins of the Bon Festival, it is known that the tradition of celebrating the dead during the 7th month of the year began in approximately the 16th century.

  • It is similar to Mexico’s Dia De Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead”
  • Like Dia De Los Muertos, Obon is a holiday that celebrates the life of those who have passed rather than being a morbid or sad holiday. It exists as a positive way to mourn as well as show thanks for those who have passed- whether it was hundreds of years ago or recently. It is also common for Japanese families to hold reunions during this time and spend time visiting and cleaning the graves of loved ones. This makes it a popular time for travel as people journey across the island nation to see their loved ones.

  • Obon is one of the many lantern festivals held in Japan
  • For the duration of the Obon celebrations, the spirits of those who have passed are thought to return to the realm of the living. Hundreds of lanterns are lit and displayed following Obon tradition, as the lanterns are thought to help guide the spirits during their journey to reunite with their living loved ones. Although the details of the celebrations can vary widely depending on the specific festival, one common tradition is the releasing of the Obon lanterns down a body of water at the end of the festival as a way to help guide the dead back to their realm.

  • A large and eclectic gathering
  • Obon is an eventful gathering that is similar to most major Japanese festivals. Large cities all across the nation, such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagasaki, hold festivals where millions of Japanese citizens and tourists gather to view lantern displays, visit vendors, eat, drink, see traditional music and dance performances (such as the Bon Odori; 盆踊り), and much more. Buddhist temples will often serve as host for some of the festivities as well, where monks will leave offerings for the spirits.
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