In harmony with the spirits: how Japan celebrates All Souls' Day

In mid-August, in the Land of the Rising Sun, the living meet the souls of the dead with dancing and fire

One of the most most beautiful and spectacular holidays in the world – Aubon. It is sometimes also called Obon Matsuri or simply Bon. On the days of Obon, August 13-15 (in some regions the holiday is celebrated in July), the Japanese commemorate the dead. It is believed that at this time the souls of the dead return to the living and visit them.

In harmony with the spirits: how Japan celebrates All Souls' Day

Basic rituals

This traditional holiday in Japan is more than 500 years old, but it is not a state holiday. However, many employers close their offices on these dates so that employees can adequately honor the departed relatives, go to the temple and spend time with their families. Usually on Obon days, there is a real traffic collapse in Japan: cities are in traffic jams, railway lines are overloaded, there are no tickets for domestic flights, because the Japanese leave for their native lands, where the graves of their ancestors are located.

In Harmony with the Spirits: How Japan Celebrates All Souls' Day

The celebration of the Day of the Dead in Japan is associated with Buddhist tradition. If the Shinto religion, traditional for Japan, has left behind all joyful events, such as a birthday celebration, then Buddhism is associated with “gloomy” holidays. Thus, the commemoration of ancestors is carried out according to Buddhist rites.

Modern Japanese celebrate Obon in mid-August, it is believed that it is at this time that starfall can be seen in the sky, and meteor showers are an integral part of the holiday, because the Japanese associate the stars with the souls of the dead returning to earth. The name “Obon” is abbreviated and Japaneseized from Sanskrit “ullambana”, which literally means “hanging upside down”. This metaphor means great suffering.

In harmony with the spirits: how Japan celebrates All Souls' Day

During Obon, the inhabitants of the Land of the Rising Sun hang their homes, streets and cemeteries with traditional chotin paper lanterns. They believe that the spirits of the world will be able to find their way to the right house and look into the richly decorated altar with offerings, which is installed especially for Obon. Offerings are also placed on temple altars, and sacred books are read. There is another kind of lanterns & nbsp; – toro, & nbsp; – which are lowered into the water when the Japanese see off the souls on the last day. This is an integral part of the toro-nagashi ritual.

A tourist can buy such a flashlight in a store and assemble it himself. The names of the ancestors are written on the flashlight, and a lit candle is placed inside. It is worth noting that the Japanese, as people who are very concerned about the environment, sometimes do not lower the boxes into the water, but tie them on strings so that there is a feeling that the lights are fused downstream. There are a lot of people who want to participate in toro-nagashi, often a huge crowd gathers, so it is advisable to come to the place where the toro descends through a special chute into the river in advance.

The ritual of toro-nagashi is also reflected in modern culture. In the cartoon of the studio Laika Entertainment “Kubo. The Legend of the Samurai”, which premiered in August 2016, the heroes launch lit lanterns to meet the souls of their dead relatives.

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Dances and songs

One of the most important components of the Obon festival is the Bon-odori dance, which, according to legend, was first performed by a disciple of the Buddha named Maudgalyayana to save his deceased mother from suffering in the world of hungry ghosts, or pretas. In Christian tradition, the world of hungry ghosts is purgatory. The Buddha's disciple performed Bon-odori to help his mother correct karma. According to another version, having managed to appreciate the kindness and care of the deceased mother only after her death, the monk began to dance merrily, remembering his parent with joy.

Over time, the dance became more of an entertainment: it is performed to the sounds of folk songs, a flute and a shamisen (Japanese banjo) in masks and yukata – traditional summer kimonos, with fans (uchiwa) behind their belts and wooden rattles in their hands. In Yamagata prefecture, which is located four hundred kilometers north of Tokyo, in addition to this, hats decorated with flowers are worn.

In harmony with the spirits: how Japan celebrates All Souls' Day

Bon-odori is danced differently in each region, and there are two types of this dance: dento-odori, which is considered more traditional, and minyo-odori, which dates back to the end of World War II. Sometimes the dance is performed as a city procession, and sometimes around a platform called yagura, where the musicians are placed. They can play not only folk music, but also soundtracks from Japanese favorite anime. Anyone can dance Bon-odori: these are fairly simple, measured movements that you quickly get involved in.

Northerners usually perform “Soran bushi” during the dance, which is considered the folk song of fishermen. This song was born on the island of Hokkaido – the northernmost in the Japanese archipelago. The number of verses in it is unlimited, historically new lines were often written about everything that came to mind. In the south, for example, in Kagoshima, they sing “Ohara bushi”, and in Tokyo they sing “Tokyo ondo” – in translation, this means “Tokyo motif”.

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Analogues in other countries

There are holidays similar to Obon in other Asian countries. For example, its counterpart in Korea is called Chuseok and is celebrated in autumn, when the last harvest is harvested. Food is brought to the graves, thus appeasing the spirits of the ancestors.

In China, the Ancestral Remembrance Festival is called Qingming, which means “Pure Light Festival”, which usually falls on April 5 and is considered a public holiday.

In India, the holiday is called Pitri Paksha. In 2023, it will be celebrated from September 29 to October 14. In Vietnam, Obon's analogue is Tet chung thu, which means “Mid-Autumn Festival”, and it is not directly related to the remembrance of the dead, but is part of the traditional celebration of admiring the full moon and falls on the second half of September. In the West, everyone's favorite day of the dead is Halloween, celebrated on October 31.

The material was published in August 2017, partially updated in August 2023

Nastya Trush

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