Obon ~The days in the middle of summer to stay with our ancestors~

仏教(ぶっきょう): Buddhism

Japanese article is here; https://japaneselanguagesalonbymikapanda.com/obon-1583

What is “Obon”?

Hello, this is MIKA!

This article has been written after the “Vernal Equinox Day”, however, I’ll introduce you about “Obon” in the middle of summer one step ahead.

“Obon” starts on 13th October and finish on 15th October; They are the days to hold a memorial service for our ancestors by welcomming their spirits come from other world and to stay together.

The Vernal Equinox Day and the Autumnal Equinox Day are also the days to hold a memorial service for them, however, there is a large difference between them and “Obon”; we are staying with their spirits during “Obon”.

In the term of “Obon”, “Bonodori-dance” is held in summer festivals around Japan. That dance is to offer for our ancestors.

Anyway, in this time, I’ll tell you about “Obon” in details!!

Why “Obon” has started?


“Obon” was originally the Buddhism event called “Ura-bon-e”.

One day, “Mokuren” asked Buddha, his master, that he wanted to save his mother because she had suffered in the hell.

And Buddha said him “Hold a memorial service with other priests on 15th September (in the old calendar) because our ascetic practices will have finished on that day. If you did that, she would have been saved.”

After that, his mother’s soul can rest in peace. This is the beginning of “Ura-bon-e”, the origin of “Obon”.

How do Japanese people do during “Obon”?

A decoration for our ancestors

At first, on 13th October, we have to clean up our family Buddhist altar and put some flowers and offerings.

Also we put “Bon-lantern” beside the family Buddhist altar as the markers to guide our  ancestor’s spirits.

The lantern which is hung from upside is “Gosyo-chouchin(lantern)”, and which is put on the floor is “Oouchi-andon”.

Next…well, how do you thing what they are?

The answer is, a cucumber is a horse, and an egg plant is a cow. The cucumber is called “Syouryou-uma”, the horse for spirits and the egg plant is called “Syouryou-ushi”, the cow for spirits. There is the wish that “Our ancestors will come back early with the horse and go back slowly with the cow.”

A welcome fire and a ceremonial bonfire

Then, after preparing to welcome our ancestors, we burn a welcome fire after a sunset to guide the spirits.

During a welcome fire, descendants do a ritual. And the spirits of our ancestors stay for 3 days with their descendants together.

And we burn a ceremonial bonfire after a sunset on 15th October to see them off. Also the descendants do the ritual during a ceremonial bonfire.

“Butsu-zen”, a meal for the ancestors

In addition, during that term, we offer the same meal for the ancestors and we call it “Butsu-zen”; “Butsu” and “Hotoke(-sama)” means “Buddha”. Because we call the dead persons “Hotoke(-sama)” even if they are not Buddhist.

Why do Japanese call the dead person “Buddha”?

It’s very strange custom, but there is the reason at the end of Heian era, about 1,000 years ago.

【The great statue of Buddha in Toudaiji-temple, Nara prefecture】

It was 6 A.C. when Buddhism came to Japan, and in Nara era (710~794), it had spreaded around the contry and Syoumu-emperor ordered to build the great statue of Buddha in Toudaiji-temple.

The people in Nara era believed that if they would be a priest of Buddhism after renouncing the world, they could go to “Gokuraku-joudo”, like the heaven in Christianity.

However, the nobility at the end of Heian era (794~1192) had a crafty idea; we can go to “Gokuraku-joudo” as a priest of Buddhism if we cut the heir of our head just before the time of dead, even if we don’t renounce the world and practice asceticism.

To be disgusted, this custom called “Rinjuu(the time of dead)-syukke(renouncing the world)” had spreaded speedly among the nobility.

But it was difficult to cut the hair on the head just before the dead, that’s why finally they tought that it was OK if the hair on the dead had been cut after the dead. We call it “Shigo(after the dead)-syukke”.

Because of that reason, we call all of the dead persons “Hotoke(-sama)”. For example, in police or detective dramas, people say “Hotoke” to dead persons.

Final comment

【An image of Japanese tomb and ghost】

How was it?

After all, in Japan, there are 3 times to hold a memorial service for our ancestors; the Vernal Equinox Day, “Obon”, and the Autumnal Equinox Day.

And “Obon” is also the term of homecoming, it’s better to buy a ticket of an airplane or Shinkansen!

Additionally, if you have Japanese relative and go to their tomb together, pay attantion not to have a heatstroke!!

That’s all about “Obon”, thank you for reading♪