Obon Festival

Obon Festival (Bon Festival, Festival of Lanterns, Festival of the Dead)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Buddhist)
Date of Observation: July 13-15 or August 13-15
Where Celebrated: Japan, and by Japanese Buddhists throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Bon-Odori, Lanterns
Related Holidays: All Souls' Day, Ching Ming, Hungry Ghosts Festival


The Obon Festival has been observed by Buddhist families in Japan ever since Buddhism was introduced there around 552 B . C . E . Although it was originally celebrated only by the court and noblemen, the celebration eventually spread to the general population. It was a festival in honor of the dead, similar to the Christian ALL SOULS' DAY .

Buddhism is one of the four largest religious families in the world. It is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 B . C . E .), who came to be known as Buddha, or "The Enlightened One." The basic tenets of Buddhism can be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are 1) the truth and reality of suffering; 2) suffering is caused by desire; 3) the way to end suffering is to end desire; and 4) the Eightfold Path shows the way to end suffering. The Eightfold Path consists of 1) right view or right understanding; 2) right thoughts and aspirations; 3) right speech; 4) right conduct and action; 5) right way of life; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; and 8) right contemplation.

Although the Obon Festival is still a fairly solemn occasion, people take joy in the knowledge that their dead relatives can return to earth for a visit. Preparations include cleaning houses and graveyards and lighting small BONFIRES to welcome the spirits home. The graves of the deceased are often decorated with the branches of the Japanese umbrella pine (koya-maki), rice balls (mochi), fruit, and incense. In the main room of the house, where the altar is located, a small mat is spread on the floor. The ihai or record of ancestry is placed on the mat, along with appropriate decorations. A miniature fence made of leaves surrounds this arrangement, and a table is set with foods that the dead particularly enjoy, which include potatoes cooked with sesame seeds, eggplant or gourds, sweets, fruits, and cakes. Throughout the three days of the festival, the dead are spoken to as if they were alive and present. On the final day, they are offered special "farewell rice balls" to sustain them on their return journey.

The purpose of the Obon Festival is to keep the memory of the deceased alive and to encourage obedience from sons and daughters. Obon celebrations are held not only in Japan, but in other countries where there is a large Japanese Buddhist population. In the United States, for example, there is a big Obon celebration in Chicago, as well as in several California cities. Obon celebrations take place in either July or August, depending upon the location.



Bonfires are lit outside Japanese homes twice during Obon. At the start of the festival, they are lit to welcome the spirits of the dead as they return to earth to visit the living. On the third and final day of the festival, they are lit to guide the spirits back to their celestial home. Just as certain foods are prepared to satisfy the spirits' appetites, the light of the bonfires is regarded as necessary to help them find their way around.

In Kyoto, Japan, giant bonfires are lit on the mountainsides. They are made in the shape of the character that means "large."


The climax of the Obon Festival is the Bon-Odori, or "Dance of Rejoicing," a folk dance that is held in every town, by the light of paper LANTERNS , to comfort the souls of the dead. It was originally a dance of lamentation in which close relatives of the deceased would dance and sing to the music of a flute and a drum. The early Bon dances were performed at a variety of local festivals, many of which coincided with Obon. These other festivals eventually merged, and what began as a religious celebration for the spirits of the dead evolved into a gala festival of dancing.

In Buddhist temples during Obon, dancers perform to the beat of a huge taiko (drum) mounted on a platform. Both men and women wear a light summer kimono known as a yukata, and most carry large sandalwood fans. Sometimes their steps are slow and graceful as they assume postures that resemble living statues. At other times, their bodies sway in unison and spin faster and faster as the tempo of the drumbeat increases. Although some people practice the traditional steps with instructors for weeks in advance, almost anyone can join in simply by following the person in front of him or her. Bon dances, which can continue throughout the night, express the joyous side of the Obon Festival, just as the lantern ceremonies (see LANTERNS ) reflect its more serious side.


Lanterns play an important role throughout the three days of Obon. At night, families go to the cemetery carrying lanterns designed to light the path for the ancestral spirits. Sometimes lanterns are left burning on the graves, casting an eery glow over the otherwise dark cemetery. Lanterns are often left burning in front of each house as well, serving as signposts for both guests and the souls of the departed. Then, on the final day of the festival, little boats with paper lanterns on the bow are set adrift on lakes and rivers. The boats contain the names of the ancestors who are being honored.

The Todaji Temple in Honolulu, which is the only member of Buddhism's oldest sect in the United States, holds a procession of floating spirits in Ala Moana Park during Obon. After a short service in the temple, its members launch several hundred wooden boats, each about three feet long, decorated with colored lanterns and filled with offerings of food and incense and memorial tablets with the names of ancestors written on them. Each family launches one boat-even if it's only a waxed paper carton. The fleet is led by the mother boat or oyabune, which is usually five feet long.


Araki, Nancy K., and Jane M. Horii. Matsuri Festival: Japanese-American Celebrations and Activities. San Francisco: Heian International Pub. Co., 1978. Bauer, Helen, and Sherwin Carlquist. Japanese Festivals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Obon Festival

Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.


Shingon Buddhist International Institute www.shingon.org/library/archive/Obon.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Obon Festival

July 13-15; August 13-15
Also called the Bon Festival or Festival of the Dead, this is the time when the dead revisit the earth, according to Japanese Buddhist belief. Throughout Japan, in either July or August, depending on the area, religious rites and family reunions are held in memory of the dead.
On the first evening of the festival, small bonfires are lit outside homes to welcome the spirits of ancestors. A meal, usually vegetables, rice cakes, and fruit, is set out for the spirits, and for two days they are spoken to as though they were present. On the final day (July 15 or Aug. 15), farewell dumplings are prepared, and another bonfire is lit outside the house to guide the spirits back. The climax is the Bon-Odori, "dance of rejoicing," folk dances held in every town by the light of paper lanterns, to comfort the souls of the dead. Some Bon-Odori dances are especially famous—one being the Awa Odori of Tokushima, which is accompanied by puppet shows and groups of musicians parading night and day.
At midnight some families gather the leftover rice cakes and food and take them to the waterfront. They are placed in a two- or three-foot-long boat made of rice straw with a rice straw sail; a lit paper lantern is on the bow and burning joss sticks at the stern. The breeze carries the boats, sustaining the spirits on their outward trip.
Obon celebrations are also held in Japanese communities throughout the world. About 500 people usually take part in the Bon-Odori in Chicago in July, and there are noted celebrations in several California cities.
Japan Information Network, Japan Center for Intercultural Communications
2-7-7 Hirakawacho
Tokyo, 102-0093 Japan
81-3-3263-5041; fax: 81-3-3230-4107
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BkHolWrld, Jul 13
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Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
The plan will capitalize on traditional holiday periods in neighboring countries, such as the three-day Obon Festival and "Silver Week" held in Japan during August and September respectively, and China's Golden Week holiday in early October.
In preparation for the Obon Festival (the Festival of the Dead), tens of thousands attend the annual Kyoto pottery market held in early August.
The first is that it enables 24-hour operation if the other runway is under repair, and the second is the capacity to increase the number of flights at around midday, when arrivals and departures are most frequent, and at peak times such as the Obon festival in August and the year-end and New Year holidays.
WHEN: Tue-Sun (also open Sat during Obon festival).
HEAR San Jose Obon Festival. WHAT: Feel the rhythm of San Jose Taiko and traditional Japanese music at this annual event hosted by the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin.
A case in point is the obon festival in Shiraiwa, a village not tar from Kakunodate, and an example of the type of indigenous community of 2000 inhabitants that Kojiro had studied.
It focuses on holiday periods in neighboring countries such as the three-day "Obon Festival" and "Silver Week" in Japan during August and September and China's Gold Week holiday period in early October.
Correction (published July 20, 2011): The Obon Festival will be held from 5 p.m.
Get hapi More than 700 bon odori dancers dressed in kimonos and hapi coats make their way through San Jose's Japantown during the annual SanJose Buddhist Church Betsuin's Obon Festival, July 12--13.
Japanese Obon Festival - Japanese dancing, drumming, crafts, food and more, 5 p.m.
Japanese Obon Festival - Japanese dancing, taiko drumming, crafts, food and more, 5 p.m.
Also known as the Festival of Lanterns, the Obon Festival honors ancestors.