The Bon Festival (お盆)

"Obon (the Bon festival)" means a series of events to worship the souls of ancestors held in Japan on and around July 15th of the old Japanese luni-solar calendar. Although it is regarded as a Buddhist event, many parts can not be explained by Buddhist doctrine, and it is considered that the current form is a combination of Japanese traditional folk events and 'Urabon,' a Buddhist festival.

Origins

The name 'Bon' (or more commonly 'Obon') is an abbreviation of the Sanskrit 'Ullambana', rendered as 'Urabon' in Japanese. Bon' originally meant a container for offerings to souls of the departed, then also came to refer to the spirits themselves, becoming synonymous with Urabon. Even now, the spirits of the dead are called Bonsama in some regions.

Though the specific origins of the Bon festival are unkown, it is believed that twice a year, once in early spring and once in early fall (said to be a remnant of when one year was counted as two six-month years), there were events held at the time of the full moon to celebrate the souls of the dead coming to visit their descendants
However, the early spring one became the New Year festival since the event placed more of an emphasis on the divinity of ancestors as Toshigami (gods who visit houses on New Year's Day), and the early autumn one was integrated with Urabon and became a Buddhist event. It is considered that the custom of holding a service for ancestors in the summer was established around the eighth century in Japan.

The form of the event differs depending on the region or Buddhist sect. Jizobon', a Buddhist mass for the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha (known as Jizo in Japan), separate from the Bon festival, is also held in the summer.

Obon is also used in idiomatic phrases. It is used in expressions such as 'Bonkure (Bon and year-end)', meaning a period of time, and 'it is like Bon and New Year's day have arrived together' to mean a series of very busy or happy events.

Date
It was traditionally celebrated on July 15th of the lunar calendar. Since Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar on January 1st, 1873, Obon is usually held on one of the days below.

(1) July 15th of the lunar calendar (Kyubon, or old Bon)

(2) July 15th of the Gregorian calendar

(3) August 15 of the Gregorian calendar (Tsukiokure no Bon, or one month late Bon; also called Kyubon, or old Bon in areas that mainly celebrate on July 15)

Others (including August 1st)

However, since Yamanashi Prefecture (as well as Niigata Prefecture and other prefectures) recommended abolishing the lunar Bon festival on July 13th, 1873, (1) has gradually become minor and (3), Tsukiokure no Bon, or Kyubon, has become more common nationwide. Still, families who have lived in Tokyo for several generations regard (2), July 15th of the Gregorian calendar, as their Obon and hold events such as visiting graves in this period. When a temple has Buddhist parishioners in both Kanagawa Prefecture and Tokyo Metropolitan Area, the priests are invited by parishioners in Tokyo in the middle of July (2), and by those in Kanagawa in the middle of August (3). Also, Hakodate City, Nemuro City and a part of Saroma Town in Hokkaido, and Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture in Hokuriku hold Obon in (2)., July of the Gregorian calendar. Tsukechi Town and Kashimo in Nakatsugawa City, Gifu Prefecture hold the festival on August 1st.

These days, the media refer to the the most common period, the middle of August, (3), as 'Obon,' so this use is taking hold nationwide. However in Okinawa, (1), the lunar Bon festival, is still the most common.

The Bon festival of the lunar calendar is called Kyubon (old Bon), but the Bon festival of the Gregorian calendar is not usually called Niibon (new Bon). Hatsubon (First Bon) or Niibon (New Bon) actually means the first Obon following the death of a family member and so different from Obon.

Nationwide customs

The Bon festival is celebrated throughout Japan, and events and customs vary from region to region. Customs which are not necessarily fixed, but are relatively common nationwide, include the following.

Mukaebi

On the 13th, small fires called mukaebi (literally welcoming fire), are lit outside houses to welcome the spirits of the deceased into the home. When people lived closer to the family graves, it was not uncommon to go and pick the spirits up. Some rural areas still observe this custom.

After welcoming the spirits into the home, people hold a memorial service and have a priest come and read the sutras. This reading of the sutras is called Tanagyo. The name comes from the sutra (kyo) read in front of the 'Shoryodana', a shelf on which offerings are placed.

Some households practice 'rusu-mairi.'
Rusu-mairi' refers to visiting the family grave and cleaning it while the spirits are away.

On the 16th, fires called okuribi (literally sending off fire) are lit outside homes to see the spirits off on their journey back to the afterlife.

Bon Odori Dance

On the evening of the 16th, the day after the Bon festival, men and women of all ages get together in the precincts of a shrine and dance the Bon Odori. This is said to imitate the dead's dancing with joy at escaping the sufferings of hell. This is the climax of the summer festival. July 15th of the lunar calendar is a fifteen-day-old moon, and the 16th is a sixteen-day-old moon, so on either night there is a full moon. Therefore, if it was clear on the 16th night, people could dance all night long because the moonlight was bright.

These days, the dance is not necessarily held in 'the precincts of a shrine,' and mostly it is a non-religious event. As a typical example, people make yagura (a wooden framed stage) in places where many people can gather, such as a station square, open street stalls and the main reason for the festival is said to get acquainted with each other in the area. Since many people return to their hometown during the Bon festival period, it provides a chance for people from each region to meet after a long separation.

Newly started Bon Odori are often held in a slightly different period to avoid competition with other Bon Odori. This is considered to be related to the fact that many people living in new residential areas 'cannot join in because they return to their hometown during the Bon festival period'. Some are given alternative names to 'Bon Odori' to avoid a religious connection. However, it is undeniable that they are related to 'Bon Odori'.

Hatsubon and Niibon

The first Bon festival following the Buddhist memorial service to commemorate 49 days since someone's death is called Hatsubon or Shinbon (Niibon, Arabon), and customs are observed more strictly than usual. Though this also depends on the region, there are special rituals, for example, households experiencing Hatsubon hang all white Chochin (Japanese paper lantern) at the gate or grave, while other graves have red and white Chochin.

Local Customs

The following are not necessarily practiced nationwide, but are common customs in certain regions. Although they are common in some areas, they are not practiced at all in others.

In some areas during the Bon festival period, they prepare animal figures made from a cucumber and an eggplant and called Shoryoma, used by the spirits of the deceased to come and go between this world and the other. The legs, made from ogara (hemp reeds), matchsticks or disposable wooden chopsticks are inserted into the vegetables, which represent a horse and a cow. The cucumber is regarded as a fleet-footed horse to come back home quickly from the other world, and the eggplant as a leaden-footed cow to go back from this world to the other as slowly as possible, and also to carry offerings back to the other world, which is how they hope respectively.

In some areas, they have Kikon or Segaki, a Buddhist service to save the suffering spirits in the realm of the gaki (hungry ghosts), and make a shelf known as a gakidana to provide comfort to the spirits of people who fell and died on the street. In other cases, special Chochin called Bon chochin (Bon Festival Lantern) are displayed in front of the Buddhist altar; Toro (lanterns) of wooden frames covered with paper are set adrift in a ceremony called Toronagashi; and Chochin on small boats are floated down a river in the Shoryonagashi ceremony.

Bon Festival Holidays

Though the Bon festival, regardless of whether it is held according to the lunar or the Gregorian calendar, has never been a public holiday or a national holiday in Japan, quite a few people take holidays around August 15th, even if they are weekdays, and most school children and students are on their summer vacation. This 'Obon', as well as being a religious event to commemorate the souls of ancestors, has the air of a national holiday, with many people traveling around the country and, for those not aware of Buddhist practices, the Obon around August 15th is just a summer vacation, though most people throughout the country maintain the tradition of visting family graves.

During this period, as with the Golden Week holidays from April to May and the year-end and New Year holidays, a lot of people return to their hometown or go on trips. However, unlike the Golden Week holidays or the year-end and New Year holidays, when this period falls on Monday to Friday, they are regular weekdays, and public offices and banks have regular work, and many private companies, mostly in the non-manufacturing sector, do business, counting them as weekdays; in this case, people take their summer vacation and travel during July to September, avoiding the Bon festival when congestion and fares are at their peak.

The periods when special discount JR tickets, including books of Limited Express coupons, cannot be used (the busy period) are from April 27th to May 6th, from August 11th to 20th, and from December 28th to January 6th.

On the weekdays during the Bon festival period, some public transportation such as private railroads, subways and buses operate on holiday or Saturday timetables. However, JR lines operate on the weekday timetable.

Most companies throughout Japan have their holidays, known as the Obon holidays, during August, regardless of the local Bon festival period. Though it depends on the company, most close for three to five days on and around August 15th, the middle of the Bon festival, taking this Bon festival holiday as their summer holidays.

However, as mentioned above, when this period falls on Monday to Friday on the calendar, they are regular weekdays, so some industries such as the service industry, twenty-four-hour factories or hospitals as well as public offices and banks do business as usual, the tourist industry is in its busiest period, and retailers such as supermarkets, focus on sales of food to visitors. On the other hand, most automobile dealers are closed. Industries which do regular business during the Bon festival may take the days equivalent to the summer holidays (three to five days) as holidays, staggered from July to September.

Obon Outside Japan

In countries of the Chinese cultural sphere, July 15th of the lunar calendar is 'the Ghost Festival (中元节 in simplified characters),' and as in Japan, festivals relating to the spirits of ancestors are held. It is mixed with local customs and, like in Japan, the original Buddhist event is refered to as Urabon.

In Singapore, the 'Hungry Ghosts Festival', a festival equivalent to Bon, is celebrated mainly by residents of Chinese origin and a play similar to Beijing opera is performed for free of charge.