執筆 上野陽子
2012/8 Up

第23回 お盆とは?
Vol.23 What is Obon?

How can you describe the Obon holiday?


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Obon literally means a container

An "obon" was originally a container with which people served an offering to numina. According to one explanation, it is the name used for the spirit of the ancestors at the memorial service. In some regions, fires called mukae-bi are lit on August 13th at the entrances of houses, to guide the spirits of the residents' ancestors home. Some people make a horse out of a cucumber and a cow out of an eggplant, and use them to decorate their altar and welcome their returning ancestors, before seeing them off again on the 16th.


A unique vacation season in Japan

Because of welcoming of spirits of our ancestors, this is a very important family gathering season. It is also a time when most Japanese people can take a long holiday, so many people go traveling during Obon. Many Japanese companies also shut down at this time. Since Obon is unique to Japan, people who have business with foreign companies often have to explain the reason why they are closing. Let's take a look at some Obon customs.


迎え火/Fires to welcome the spirits of ancestors
Fires in the late afternoon on the 13th of August are called mukae-bi; and they are said to be a guide for the spirits of the ancestors. After the mukae-bi ceremony, we make an offering of food, flowers and so on. In some regions, hanging chochin displaying the family crest are used to guide the spirits.


送り火/Fires to guide ancestors' spirits back to the grave
The okuri-bi fires on the 16th are lit to send the ancestors' spirits back to the grave. Gozan-okuri is one of the famous okuri-bi. In some regions, okuri-bi is held on the 15th.


灯篭(とうろう)流し/Floating lanterns
In some regions, ancestors' spirits are sent off by floating lighted lanterns down rivers to the ocean, because it is believed that spirits exist in mountains and on rivers. Toro nagashi (floating lanterns) is a tradition that Japanese generally tend to find somewhat nostalgic because of the faint light of the candle.


盆踊り/Bon folk dance
Bon odori is widely practiced on the 15th and 16th at night and is one of the climaxes of Obon. People go to their neighborhood bon odori wearing yukata (summer kimono) and dance around a stage. Usually wa-taiko, Japanese drums, beat a rhythm for the dancers.



The Obon holiday is a time when the Japanese traditionally welcome their ancestors' on August 13th and send them back on the 16th. Japanese are able to take a long holiday at the time so people often go back to their hometown or travel around.

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