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Japanese Culture: Obon Festival

Updated: Sep 13, 2023


During the Obon Festival season, city workers return to their hometowns, where they were born and raised, and relatives gather at the family's main residence where the ancestors' graves are located in order to visit the graves and pay respect to them.

What is the meaning of Obon, a custom that is practiced in many parts of Japan, and what is the purpose of this custom? In this article, we will introduce various aspects of Obon, including Japanese Obon cultures such as Hatsubon, the Qingming Festival (Shimei) in Okinawa, and the relationship with the Qingming Festival in China.

Obon festival is a period of time people making to commemorate and remember their deceased ancestors. It is said that day is "the day to welcome the deceased spirits back home. It is believed that welcoming the spirits of the deceased during Obon and performing Obon offerings and rituals at the Buddhist altar will bring happiness to the living as well.

The history of the Obon ritual dates back to the Asuka Period, when Emperor Suiko conducted the first Obon ritual. Later, samurai and aristocratsits spread it further and then became common among the general public in the Edo Period. The following is a brief introduction to Japanese Obon culture, including offerings, flowers used during Obon, and Obon meals.

Types of Obon and Costs

In Japan, the funeral ceremony includes:

  • private funeral service, only family can attend

  • general funeral

  • one-day funeral

  • Direct burial/cremation

There are four types of funeral arrangements, and the funeral director prepares the funeral according to the wishes of the bereaved family and the budget. Typical funeral costs range from 1 to 2 million yen. Recently, due to the coronavirus, private funerals with a small number of people are increasing.

This private funeral is less expensive than a general funeral, but it also has the disadvantage of reducing the amount of incense. As the Japanese saying goes, "funeral poverty." It often refers to being unable to afford a funeral or being unable to afford a grand funeral due to high cost.

Although private funerals are more common in terms of funeral costs, it is important to decide carefully how much to spend for a funeral, taking the wishes of the deceased into consideration, and comparing the cost of the funeral with other funerals.

After the private funeral ceremony, the next step is to prepare for the Hatsubon ceremony. The preparation for the first obon will be explained later in this article. After that, it is customary to visit the graves regularly to place flowers and offer offerings at the gravesites during Obon and Ohigan.

What Do You Do During Obon?

The type of Obon varies slightly from region to region. There are three types of Obon.

  • First Obon (Hatsubon)

  • Late Obon

  • Old Obon (Kyubon)

Welcoming Fire Made at Home
Welcoming Fire Made at Home

In order to welcome the deceased and their ancestors during the Obon or Hatsubon (first Obon), several preparations are necessary, including bonfires, hozuki (a small Japanese zelkova tree), and Bon offerings.

First, Bon lanterns, which serve as a mark like as a welcoming fire, should be prepared as well as decorations called Bon ornaments. The Bon hozuki(devil's lantern) is a typical Bon decoration and is also displayed as a signpost for the return of the deceased.

During the Obon season, the basic offerings to be made at Buddhist altars are called goku (five offerings): incense, flowers, lighted lamps, purified water, and food and drinks. The food offered during Obon is vegetarian food unique to Buddhist monks, and the most well-known Obon meals are somen noodles, cucumbers and eggplants, ohagi (rice cakes), dango (sweets), and tempura.

Chrysanthemums, which are meant to ward off evil spirits, were the standard flowers for Obon, but in some recent Obon ceremonies, flowers that the deceased loved are used as decorations.

Also, a Bon offering bag is prepared to be wrapped for the Buddhist priest's visit. The market price for Bon offerings is around 5,000 to 10,000 yen.

There Are Many Types of Obon in Japan

In Japan, there are a variety of memorial services. Hatsubon (New Obon) is the first Obon for the deceased and is held in August as in the case of regular Obon. However, in Buddhism, it is believed that the deceased has been on a journey for 49 days after death. Depending on the time of death, the Hatsu Obon (first Obon) may be held in August of the following year, if the 49th day has not yet passed in the same year of the Obon period in mid-August. The preparations for Hatsubon are more elaborate than for a regular Obon, and include offerings, flowers, and Obon meals for the Buddhist altar and gravesites.

In addition, the Ohigan is held twice a year, on the spring equinox in March and on the autumn equinox in September. On the Ohigan, people visit graves to make offerings to their ancestors and clean Buddhist altars as in the case of Obon. As for offerings on the Ohigan, they are different from those of the Obon Festival: botamochi (rice cakes) for the spring higan and o-hagi (rice cakes) for the fall higan. When bringing offerings to a separate household on the far shore, a noshi paper is attached.

Chinese Qingming Festival

Qingming Festival

Qing Ming Festival in China is the equivalent of Obon in Japan. It is held around April 5 every year, when the whole family comes together to visit the graves of their patrilineal ancestors. The origin of this festival is one of the 24 solar terms in the lunar calendar.

In China, people traditionally place great importance on serving their parents, and the graves are believed to be where their ancestors live underground. Therefore, before the rainy season, the tombs are repaired, new soil is replaced in the tombs, and the grass is mowed. Then, after visiting the graves, people will gather nearby and spend half a day enjoying the family reunion as a special part of the memorial service for our ancestors.

Qing Ming Festival in Okinawa and Qing Ming Festival in China

Obon and Ohigan Offerings: Japanese Sweets
Obon and Ohigan Offerings: Japanese Sweets

Qing Ming Festival was introduced to Okinawa from China in the mid-18th century and is called Qing Ming Festival (Shimi) in Okinawa, and is still held as a traditional event today. Every year, relatives gather to visit graves and feast around them during the Qing Ming Festival. Each household, traditionally led by the oldest female member, prepares and brings in a stacked meal called usanmi, which includes rice cakes, side dishes, and other food items. The main ingredients are rice cakes and side dishes. In addition, alcohol, flowers, fruits, and colored sweets are offered to the graves.

What Is the Difference Between the Obon Festival in Japan and the Qing Ming Festival in Okinawa?

Obon in Japan is emphasized on "Butsudan" (Buddhist altars) because it is a time to welcome and make offerings to ancestors. In contrast, Okinawa's "Shimi Festival" is centered on "gravesites", as everyone goes to the gravesites and enjoys eating and drinking together around the gravesites. Although the two are the same in terms of memorial services for ancestors, the decisive difference is that Okinawan Shimi Festival is a celebration. In addition, Obon in Okinawa is a lunar festival and is held on July 13-15 of the lunar calendar.

Meaning of Obon and Shimi Festival

So far, we have introduced Obon in Japan and Shimi Festival in Okinawa. These two events are the same in terms of making offerings to ancestors and they both have the same meaning: respecting and appreciating ancestors.

Obon is once a year during which the deceased and their ancestors return home, spend a few days together then be sent off. It is considered to be a way of memorial service. On the other hand, Okinawa's Shimi Festival is an event that shows the warmth of Okinawans who cherish their families, as they believe that having a good time with all relatives in front of the graves and having their ancestors see them in good health, which is another way of memorial service.

Both of these events also have the advantage of providing precious time for family members and relatives who normally live far away from each other to get together.

Recently Emerged New Memorial Service

Memorial Diamonds to Commemorate the Deceased
Memorial Diamonds to Commemorate the Deceased

In recent years, being unable to visit graves frequently has become a problem in Japan for a variety of reasons. Until now, there has been an alternative for those who cannot visit gravesites: Eitaiku kuyo (perpetual memorial services). Perpetual memorial services provide a cemetery or temple and also help manage the graves.

Recently, however, "Diamond Burial" is becoming known as a new method of memorial service for the deceased and their ancestors. Diamond Burial is a memorial service that uses the ashes of the deceased or the remains of the deceased to create diamonds.

LONITÉ™, a Swiss company that has specialized in the production of memorial diamonds for many years, has provided a new memorial service for those who cannot visit the graves of the deceased frequently and who wish to keep the deceased near the heart.

LONITÉ™ extracts carbon from the remains, ashes, and hairs of the deceased, to produce a memorial diamond. In particular, families who have lost a loved one will find spiritual comfort in being able to carry the cremation diamond close to their hearts.

LONITÉ™ is also unique in its service to creating various types of memorial diamonds. For example, in addition to a cremation diamond, a memorial diamond can be ordered for the occasion in celebration of a wedding, a birth, or any other occasion. The cost of purchasing a headstone can be millions, and there are administrative costs involved as well. In contrast, with diamond burial, the only cost is the initial production cost. Thus, a diamond burial with diamonds from the remains of a deceased person is advantageous in many ways.

Recently, changes in society have brought about changes in traditional funerals and Obon ceremonies. Several methods of memorial services for ancestors have been developed, for example, Eitaikuyo (perpetual memorial services), in which cemeteries and temples provide memorial services even without a grave, and diamond burials, in which memorial services can be held at hand.

In addition, due to the coronavirus, funerals are becoming primarily private funerals. And due to the deterioration of the Japanese economy, more and more people are choosing "private funerals," which are more cost-effective. This makes private funerals the mainstream today.

On the other hand, the use of flowers, offerings, and food for the Bon festival has clearly changed from past times, as people now choose more durable items and foods that the deceased loved during his or her lifetime. Thus, in view of the changes in the amount of effort and money spent on memorial services in today's society, diamond burial may become a common way of memorial service in the near future.

And although the form of memorial service may differ, the only thing that will not change is the spirit of respect for the deceased and their ancestors. As long as we continue to be grateful, our lives will surely be better in the future.

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