Obon: The Japanese Ghost Festival
Updated: Aug 12, 2022
In the United States October is the month of ghosts and scary good times. This is taken from ancient European tradition of Samhain (sow-wen), in which people lit bonfires and dressed up in costume to ward off ghosts as it was thought the veil between worlds was thinnest at this time. Further, Pope Gregory III declared November 1st as All Saints Day in the eighth century. It was not long before the two celebrations began to merge. Samhain began to be called All Hallows Eve as it was the night before All Saints Day and eventually, it transitioned to Halloween.
But, in many parts of the ancient world and East Asia, beliefs regarding the dead and how, and when, best to honor them differ. In Ancient Egyptians believed that August was the month in which the veil between the spirit world and the mortal world was the thinnest. Early Europeans celebrated in October as this correlated to the end of the harvest and the beginning of the dark times, obvious metaphors for death. For the Egyptians, August marked the flooding of the Nile River and the rising of Sirius in the morning sky thus indicating that the spiritual realm came closest to earth. Within Japanese Buddhist cultures the Obon festival is held in mid-August to honor the spirts of the ancestors.
Celebrated in Japan for over five hundred years is the Bon festival, a time when the spirits of the ancestors come to visit household altars. It is celebrated for three days and in 2022, it will last from the 13th of August until the 15th. In addition to other festival trappings, a dance called Bon Odori is also featured. Just as today’s Halloween originated from two different European customs, so too the Japanese festival began elsewhere. It originated from the Ghost Festival of China which is a combination of Buddhist and Taoist festivals. The story of the festival goes back to a disciple of Buddha named Mokuren who, through supernatural powers, searched for his dead mother and found her in the realm of Hungry Ghosts.
Hungry ghosts within the Buddhist cosmology, have large empty stomachs yet, their mouths are too small and necks to thin to consume any food. Their afterlives are doomed to insatiable hunger. Their realm is one of the six realms of Samsara in which beings are reincarnated. When Mokuren had found his mother was a hungry ghost, he asked the Buddha what he could do to ease her suffering. Buddha told him to fill clean basins with fruit and other food items as well as offerings. Further, those of pure precepts and virtues should gather together and present the basins of offerings on an alter and recite mantras and prayers. In doing so, seven generations of ancestors will be released from the lower spiritual realms to consume the offerings and be blessed for a hundred years. To make their afterlives more bearable and to perhaps free them, Buddhists countries, such as Japan, hold Ghost Festivals.
Today many traditions have come together and are demonstrated at the festival. For example, people float paper lanterns down river symbolizing the ancestor’s return to the dead. Moreover, modern festivals often include a carnival with rides, games, and festival foods. In honor of the release of Mokuren’s mother, locals perform a dance called the Bon Odori celebrating the sacrifices of the ancestors. It is a way to welcome the spirits and show gratitude for their lives. Families also come together at this time and gather at the cemeteries to clean the graves and pay their respects. In some instances, picnics are also held at the gravesite so the departed loved one may attend.
Although not specifically associated with the Oban Festival, summer is considered the season of kaidan, or spooky season, in Japan. However, just as in America, October is spooky season, it makes sense that Japanese spooky season coincides with Oban. It is also believed that during the hot and sticky summer months a good ghost story will create enough chills to cool anyone off! One of the most popular traditions of story telling during the Edo period (1603-1868) was to light one hundred lamps and tell one hundred spooky stories. However, after each story, one light is extinguished so the room becomes darker with each story told. Do you have chills yet? It is said that most of these stories featured vengeful spirits, mostly of wronged women. Interestingly, through history, an angry woman has been the fodder of frightful stories across the globe.
Festivals of the dead have been celebrated throughout the world for centuries with Obon being but one such festival. It has morphed and changed over the centuries but remains at its core a tradition of honor and celebration. It comes at the end of Japan’s spooky season of spine-tingling stories on sweltering summer nights. A wonderful way to bid farewell to the spirits. May your ancestors know peace in the afterlife.
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