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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on August 09, 2014
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 30] August 9, 2014

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 30]
August 9, 2014
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal Festival:
Welcoming ancestors with hospitality: "Obon Festival"

:: 1. Seasonal Festival

Welcoming ancestors with hospitality: "Obon Festival"

When a lot of good things come at the same time or being in an
extremely busy situation, Japanese would describe it as "Feel like
Obon Festival and the New Year come together!". Let's put the New
Year aside and just talk about Obon Festival. There are less and
less special activities for Obon Festival, especially city area, so,
people may hardly understand what the above phrase saying. However,
most of people can think of "Bon Odori (Bon Festival Dance)" as a
reminder of summer when talking about Obon Festival.

Since ancient times, Japanese believe that ancestors come back twice
a year to meet their descendent. An event is held on the full moon
night of the beginning of spring and autumn to welcome them. The
Buddhist ceremony called "Urabon", held on 15th July of lunar
calendar, is a memorial service for ancestors. This ceremony and the
event held on beginning of autumn were gradually combined into the
Obon Festival.

The first Obon Festival as a part of Buddhist event was held by
Emperor Suiko in 606 year and it gradually became a regular event for
nobles and monks between the Heian period to the Kamakura period
(9-14th centuries). The original language used in the Buddhist
scriptures is Sanskrit. "Urabon" is "ullambana" in this language
which means "suffering from being hanged head down in hell". The Obon
Festival was originally started to relieve those souls from suffering
in hell.

Although the Buddhist Obon Festival started in the Edo period (16-18th
century), a similar event as a ritual for ancestors was held by
common people before that. The Tanabata Festival mentioned in the news
letter last month was written as 棚幡 (a shelf and a flag) as well. This
festival was originally an event for preparing for the Obon Festival
and we could see the connection with it such as placing "Shouryou
dana" which is a shelf for welcoming ancestors' spirits on 7th evening,
bamboos and cloth-made flags which were put up high to be a sign and
decoration in the Buddhist ceremony.

What people offer for ancestors on the "Shouryou Dana" depends on the
area or religion, but "Shouryou uma", a horse-like or cow-like
decoration made with cucumber or eggplant stuck with four
toothpick-legs, and winter cherry with a sepal are representative.
The cucumber is an imitation of a horse to hope that ancestors would
be able to come back as quick as possible like riding the horse. The
eggplant-made cow-like decoration associated with the wish that
ancestors can relax in home and carry lots of their offerings back.
Winter cherry is written as 鬼灯 (ogre light). The winter cherry
lantern's light can guide the ancestor's way to their descendant's
home so they would not get lost.

The Bon festival dance originated to send off ancestors' soul,
started by a monk named Kuuya in Heian period. His dance, singing
Nianfo during dance was put into the Urabon event and became the Bon
festival dance. The season of Obon in the lunar calendar was on 15th
July, which is always a full moon night. Under fine weather, people
must have enjoyed dancing whole night under the moonlight. Religious
colour of Bon festival dance has faded out with the times and it
gradually became an entertainment, but people develop the dance into
local dance which brought local community together in each area. The
festival was also a great opportunity for young people to find their
partner or propose as well.

In your country, are there any similar events to welcome ancestors
like the Obon Festival in Japan?

Translation: Hitomi Kochi, reviewed by Chan Yitin

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