Obon Festival - The Day of the Dead in Japan

WRITTEN BY

Learn Japanese with Anime, click to learn more!

Most of the Japanese population is Buddhist, making their rituals part of the national tradition. One of the most widespread customs is Obon, known as the day of all souls. In Brazil the festival usually happens under the name of Bon Odori, since the festival focuses a lot on dance.

Obon can also be called just Bon or Urabon, which is derived from Avalambana in Sanskrit (day of all souls). An event similar to the day of the dead, but with an atmosphere of happy dances and gratitude.

This festival takes place on several dates depending on the region of the country, the most common being in August (summer season). This variation between three dates occurs from the arrival of the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era.

Festival obon - o dia dos mortos no japão

In mid-July, the solar calendar commemorates in mid-July. August 15 is the most celebrated date in the country and is based on the lunar calendar in the Kanto region. And on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, which changes the date annually, the celebration of the northern part of the Kanto region takes place.

OBON FESTIVAL RITUALS

The festival was created to honor the ancestors, so it is very common for people to receive work permits or organize holidays for these three days of celebration. During this period, everyone returns to their hometowns for the festival.

Many preparations are needed. The tombs need to be cleaned and offerings (food, drink, flowers) are placed for the ancestors on altars. Everything is done with great care and attention, as it is believed that the ancestors came from the world of the dead especially so that they can reunite with the family in this period of fraternization.

Festival obon - o dia dos mortos no japão

There are a number of rituals that are part of Obon. It all starts on the first day, when lanterns are lit inside the houses to help the family bring the ancestors from the tomb to the residence. On the last day, lanterns are painted with the family crest to guide the ancestors to the tombs. All this with a lot of incense in cemeteries, as well as in Japanese houses. The fire marks the beginning and end of the festival.

During these three days there are other events. One is the ritual of floating lanterns (Tooro Nagashi), which occurs with handmade lanterns, with a candle illuminating its interior. These are placed in a river to be taken to the ocean and represent the souls of the ancestors.

The Bon Odori dance

Bon Odori (typical dance) takes place at night to the sound of drums in shrines, temples and parks. This dance is performed with the intention of symbolizing both the welcoming and the celebration of the living with the dead through dance.

It varies from region to region, each has a different style of dance and music. The way the dance is performed also differs, it is typically performed with people in a circle around the yagura (bandstand of Obon musicians and singers).

They can also rotate around the yagura clockwise or counterclockwise, sometimes face the yagura and move away from it, or even dance in a straight line through the city streets. The dance choreography is different in each region, as well as its meaning.

Festival obon - o dia dos mortos no japão

For example, in a mining region, there may be movements that symbolize digging ore, loading and pushing full ore carts. And each dance has an object that is used by the participants, for example, hats decorated with flowers, towels or small wooden clappers. As the festival takes place in the summer, participants wear yucata, light cotton kimonos.

It occurs during the nights to the sound of drums in shrines, temples and parks. This dance is performed with the intention of symbolizing both the welcoming and the celebration of the living with the dead through dance. It varies from region to region, each has a different style of dance and music.

The way the dance is performed also differs, it is typically performed with people in a circle around the yagura (bandstand of Obon musicians and singers). They can also rotate around the yagura clockwise or counterclockwise, sometimes facing the yagura and move away from it, or even dance straight through the city streets.

The dance choreography is different in each region, as well as its meaning. For example, in a mining region, there may be movements symbolizing digging ore, loading and pushing full ore carts. And each dance has an object that is used by the participants, for example, hats decorated with flowers, towels or small wooden clapboards. As the festival takes place in the summer, participants wear yucata, light cotton kimonos.

Emergence of the OBON FESTIVAL

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy created from the teachings of Buddha, who lived in northern India. It was spread from India to central Asia and then to China, Korea and Japan. For this reason the scriptures and doctrines were developed mostly in Pali and Sanskrit, literary languages linked to ancient India.

Festival obon - o dia dos mortos no japão

This is why a Japanese festival derives from an Indian sutra, the Avalambana-sutra (Urabon-kyo in Japanese). It tells the story of a Buddha's disciple who uses his supernatural powers to identify where his deceased mother is. Find out that she is in the realm of hungry ghosts suffering a lot.

Then he asks the Buddha how he can get his mother out of there, who guides him to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had completed the summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. He accomplishes the task and manages to free his mother from hell.

He reflects on his mother's life and realizes all his selflessness and sacrifices made by him. As he was very happy with his mother's release and grateful for his kindness, then he dances for joy. Thus Bon Odori is born, in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and celebrated.