Obon: Buddhists, Japanese culture embrace ancestors and Bon dances

MONDAY, JULY 15-SUNDAY, AUGUST 18: It’s Obon season! From China to Japan to Hawai’i and in Buddhist communities worldwide, temples are adorned with hundreds of paper lanterns; devotees honor the spirits of deceased ancestors; the Bon-Odori dance invites participants of every age; flavorful chicken teriyaki, steaming bowls of udon and juicy watermelon slices are the common fare.

The festival of Obon lasts just three days, but when the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian at the beginning of the Meiji area, localities reacted differently—and now, different regions mark Obon at widely varying times between mid-July and mid-August. (Wikipedia has details.)

Obon is a shortened version of the term Ullambana, which, in Buddhism, indicates great suffering. By praying for ancestors’ spirits, it’s believed that their suffering can be lessened; the Bon-Odori dance is a joyful recognition of the alleviation of suffering.


Japanese culture has embraced Obon for more than 500 years, but the story of Bon Odori begins much earlier, with a disciple of Buddha. According to legend, this disciple possessed supernatural powers that he used to look upon his deceased mother. The disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and was suffering there. Deeply bothered, the disciple approached Buddha and asked how he might free his mother’s soul from the realm. Buddha instructed the monk to make offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, and when the monk did this, he saw his mother’s release. In joy, he also began to see his mother’s past unselfishness and the numerous sacrifices she had made for him. Now overjoyed, the monk danced the first “Bon Odori” dance. (The Shingon Buddhist International Institute has more.) Centuries later, adherents continue to recognize the sacrifices and goodness of their ancestors during the festival of Obon.


Legend has it that the monk of Bon Odori called upon Buddha in the seventh lunar month, and as such, Obon has always been a summer festival. (Interested in a short documentary of a Japanese observation of Obon? Check out this one on YouTube.)

Lightweight, cotton kimonos are commonly worn by dancers and festival attendees, with carnivals in some areas and a mix of summer and traditional foods. Bon dances are as different as the regions that perform them, with some using accessories like fans or towels and others imitating the area’s history. (This press story interviews a 77-year-old woman who has been dancing traditionally since age 4.) Modern Bon dance music can be written to the beat of well-known songs or kids’ tunes, and often, steps are intentionally simple so that everyone can participate.

Lanterns are hung on the front of houses throughout Obon to guide ancestors’ spirits home, and on the last day of Obon, the paper lanterns are illuminated with a candle and floated down a river or body of water to symbolize the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the deceased. (Make your own lanterns and teach kids about Obon with help from Circle Time Kids and In Culture Parent.) A grand fireworks display ends the ceremonies.


Though Obon is not a national holiday, many Japanese citizens take vacations during this time and return home for family reunions. (Get the scoop for 2013 in Japan at Japan-Guide.) Calendar interpretations vary widely, placing Obon in mid-July in Tokyo, in mid-August in China, and varying in other regions of Japan, such as Okinawa.

Outside of Japan, dates also vary in Brazil, which houses the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Hawai’i follows suit, where Japanese-American events are prominent. (In San Jose, Japantown provides food and entertainment in mid-July; the Kauai Museum in Hawai’i is currently running a “Buddhist Temples of Hawaii” exhibit; in Ontario, a press story covers the deep-rooted history of its Buddhist temple.) Street festivals stocked with Japanese culture, art and cuisine are also popular during Obon season.


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