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What is the Bon Festival?

The Bon Festival is a tradition centered on the Japanese Buddhist custom to pay homage to the spirits of their ancestors. This celebration is looked at as a holiday much like a family reunion, where people return to ancestral family locations. They visit and clean the graves of their ancestors. It is a time where ancestors are believed to revisit household altars. Other information pertaining to the festival, its meaning and traditions will be discussed in this article.

The concept of the family reunion holiday has Buddhist and Confucian roots. The tradition has been followed in Japan for more than 500 years. Traditionally, the festival involves a dance called Bon-Odori. For three days, the holiday is observed with the starting date varying according to the region of Japan that one lives in. The celebration could take place in the months of July or August depending on the location. For example, Old Bon (known as ‘Kyu Bon’) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar in some places. While the three days are not an official public holiday, people are still allowed to take leave to celebrate.

Origin of the Festival

‘Obon’ refers to great suffering, and ‘Bon Odori’ comes from a tale involving Maha Maudgalyayana, who was a disciple of Buddha. He used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He had learned that she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. This greatly disturbed Maha and he went to the Buddha to ask how he could release his mother from the realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had recently completed their summer retreat, which was on the 15th day of the seventh month.

After the disciple followed the advice, he saw that his mother was released. He also started to see the true nature of her past unselfishness. He saw the many sacrifices that she had made for her son. The disciple was elated that his mother was released and grateful to know the kindness of his mother. He danced for joy, which is where the Bon Odori (or Bon Dance) originated. The dance represented a time where the sacrifices and love of their ancestors were recognized and appreciated.

The festival is celebrated during the summertime, where heat causes participants to wear traditional yukata (kimonos made out of light cotton). Many Obon celebrations involve a large carnival with games, rides and fun foods like watermelon. The floating of lanterns mark the end of the festival, where paper lanterns are lit up and set down rivers. This is a symbolic gesture that signifies the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the dead. A fireworks display often follows.