Obon & Bon Odori: The Dead Can Dance

obon & bon odori: the dead can dance

Aaron Pylinski | Community Writer

In Hispanic cultures, there is the Dia de los Muertos - or Day of the Dead - where people celebrate the lives of their deceased family members. The Torajan peoples in Indonesia do things a little creepier by digging up their loved ones and dressing them up in new clothing as a way to show respect. Here in Japan, though, we have obon.

Obon is a three-day Buddhist traditional event that commemorates a family’s deceased loved ones, a tradition observed in Japan for over 500 years. During obon, it is believed that a deceased ancestor’s spirit returns to the living world to visit their relatives. This is one of the few times that Japanese people visit the cemetery throughout the year.

The Japanese typically celebrate obon around the middle of August, which is called Hazuki or the month of the leaves. It was originally celebrated on the seventh month in the lunar calendar, called Fumizuki also known as the month of books. There are still a couple of locations like Tokyo and Okinawa that still celebrate obon in July.

During obon, Japanese families give their houses a thorough cleaning and place food, flower, and lantern offerings on a butsudan (or Buddhist altar). Lanterns or fires are lit at houses to welcome the spirits of the deceased back home. There is also usually traditional folk dances (called bon odori) held in public places to honor the dead and the entire ritual culminates on the third day when lanterns are taken to cemeteries or floated down a river to guide the spirits back to the afterlife.

MCCS provides a gateway to experiencing these events. On August 14, Cultural Adaptation is invited to bon odori dancing at a nursing home near the Kintai Bridge. The dance is from 1:30-9 PM. This event is an invite from the people of the nursing home and is considered an intimate affair, so please respect the custom and remember we’re ambassadors to our neighbors outside the gate. Cultural Adaptation is also teaming up with the Youth & Teen Center for bon odori dancing in Minamigochi on August 12 from 3-10 PM. This event is open to the public and has a fireworks display at the end. If you are interested in attending either event, contact Cultural Adaptation at 253-6165.

Don’t forget to take busy traffic situations into account during obon. This is a peak time for domestic travel and if you are planning any vacation around the middle of August, adjust your plans accordingly. My advice, go out and experience the tradition. It seems to me that most people celebrating obon are willing to let you participate in some capacity, so why not give it a shot.

Obon Traditions

Mukae-bon: The first day of obon people light paper lanterns at their house and then bring them to their family graves to guide the spirits back home. This is called mukae-bon.
Okuri-bon: On the final day, the family hangs the lantern to help guide the spirits to their eternal resting place. This is called okuri-bon.
Bon Odori: At night during obon, families gather in a park, temple, or town square. There is usually a scaffold or tower erected with lanterns and people don their yukata (or summer kimono) and dance along to traditional songs.
Floating Lanterns: A relatively newer tradition, some Japanese families now light a paper lantern on the last day of obon and set it afloat down a river so their deceased loved ones’ spirit will find eternity on the ocean.

Large Obon Festivals in Japan

Awa-Odori Festival: Tokushima City - Usually well over a million people watch or participate. Don your snazziest yukata and take a shot at local folk dancing. Held August 12-15.
Daimonji Gozan Okuribi: Kyoto - Five bonfires are lit atop five mountains in the Higashiyama district. Grab a seat at a rooftop bar in Kyoto to get the best views. Held August 16 at 8 PM.
Nagasaki Shoro Nagashi: Nagasaki - Japan’s most recognized obon celebration is the Spirit Boat Procession. Held August 15.
Hokkai Bon Odori: Mikasa, Hokkaido - Mikasa is the origin location of the Hokkai-bon-uta song. It accompanies the Hokkai-bon-odori dancing, a large-scale spectacle to honor the dead in Hokkaido. Held August 15.