August in Japan

Brad Rozairo, OMI – The month of August in Japan reminds us of the deep meaning and the importance of peace as Hiroshima and Nagasaki commemorate the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombing this year. This opens a ten-day period (August 6 – 15) dedicated to peace, which the Catholic church in Japan holds every year as a time for remembrance and as a call for world peace. During this time, in many churches prayers and masses are offered for world peace. Some parishes organize peace events such as sharing of war experience stories by the living victims of the atomic bombs, peace music concerts and workshops to promote peace.

Every year in August, Japanese people celebrate “Obon” (August 13 – 15) which falls during the ten-day period dedicated to peace. Obon is a Buddhist festival held annually to celebrate and honor one’s ancestors. There is a belief that at Obon the souls of the dead come back to visit the living before returning to the afterlife a few days later.

The beginning of Obon can be attributed to one of Buddha’s disciples, who used his powers to get the spirit of his deceased mother back to life. Upon realizing his mother had descended to the ‘realm of hungry ghosts’ (in Buddhism, a ‘hungry ghost’ is a supernatural being suffering from hunger for a particular thing), the disciple became so distressed and somehow wanted to save his mother’s spirit from her pain. So, he approached Lord Buddha for advice. He was asked to make offerings to Buddhist monks and to hold a memorial service for his mother. The disciple followed the advice, and as a result, his mother was released from her suffering and her spirit was freed. Thus, the festival of Obon is held to free ancestors’ spirits of their pain.

It is interesting to look at a few traditions associated with Obon. For the Japanese, fire and light are important symbols. During the time of Obon, the Japanese hang paper lanterns outside their houses to light the way for the returning spirits. Some temples hold a fire ceremony to welcome back the spirits. At the end of the festival, families help the spirits go back to the afterlife with a guiding light. For the sending-off ceremony, communities gather on the river banks, and candles are lit inside paper lanterns and set out floating on the river, each candle representing the soul of the ancestors.

Obon is a tradition that brings the family together and unites them with siblings, parents and grandparents and they share a meal. Inside the homes, people have Buddhist altars where they offer fruits, rice, green tea etc. and share them with the dead. This reunion with the dead is an occasion to treat the spirits as if they are still alive. Then they visit the family grave together by bringing with them a family member’s favourite snack, sake or flowers. At the grave, prayers are recited and the ritual of cleansing is performed by using a special pail of water onto the tombstone.

The main feature of the three-day event of Obon is Bon-Odori, a traditional folk dance performed as a way to welcome the return of the ancestral spirits, as well as a send-off. The style of dance and music vary according to region and they represent the culture and history of that region. But nowadays, ‘Bon Odori’ is seen more as the main event of summer festivals rather than being a religious affair. However, its origin cannot be forgotten.

Japan is a country with a vibrant “matsuri” (festival) culture. Obon, which is the third busiest Japanese holiday period after New Year and Golden Week, gives people time for a break to celebrate the Obon festival with family and friends. During the month of August, the weather in Japan can be hot and humid, but Obon and other summer events will give you an opportunity to experience Japanese culture and tradition.


Praying at the grave of the ancestors
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