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Obon: A Dance to the Ancestors

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Right around mid-August people gather together in Japan for a holiday. They return to their hometowns, visit cemeteries to leave offerings, and light lanterns outside of their houses. Once, night begins to fall, they head to parks, shrines, and other public places, often wearing a type of light cotton summer kimono called a yukata, for taiko drumming and dancing that can last for hours. The holiday, usually celebrated from August 13 through 15, is called Obon.

Obon, sometimes called the Bon Festival, is a custom of Buddhist origin that exists to honor the spirits of our ancestors. During the duration of Obon, it is thought that the souls of the dead return to Earth from the afterlife to visit their living descendants and dance alongside them. The exact traditions of Obon vary somewhat from region to region, but their basic features are rather similar. Oftentimes, Bon Festivals feature a type of ceremonial dance, called a Bon Dance. Musicians and drummers sit on an elevated stage, and people gather around them, dancing in a circle. Oftentimes, a town will have its own unique type of dance and music frequently modeled after what the town is known for. On the last day of the festival, people light lanterns and sail them on small, wooden boats down the nearby river as a farewell to the spirits who have visited them in this time.

In addition to large public gatherings, there are also several smaller, more personal ways Japanese honor their ancestors during Obon. Frequently families will make a trip to the cemetery to clean their family graves, and leave offerings of uncooked rice, plain dango, and sliced raw eggplant. People may also leave what are known as “cucumber horses” and “eggplant cows” outside of their homes with burning incense. These horses and cows are simply constructed with toothpicks and the vegetables in their names, and are thought to be the vehicles by which spirits travel to and from the afterlife on Obon. The cucumber horses are leaner and faster and bring spirits to Earth from the realms of the dead, and the eggplant cows, which slower but sturdier, bring the spirits, along with all they have been offered by the living during Obon, back to the afterlife.

While the holiday deals with death, and honoring the dead, Obon is usually a happy time. People rejoice at being able to spend time with their loved ones who have passed, and use the time to reconnect with their families. Obon represents a time where people have the opportunity to celebrate life, and the effects that those who are no longer living have had for them. It is a significant enough holiday that it is celebrated around the world in places where Japanese people live. Brazil, which is home to the largest group of Japanese people living outside of Japan in the world, has a large, well known Bon Festival every year in the city of Sao Paulo. Bon Festivals take place around the United States, as well, with significant ones happening in Newark, NJ, San Francisco, and Hawaii.


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