This is kind of a silly title, I know. I couldn’t come up with anything good that explained this post. See, I know that Halloween is a fairly recent occurrence in Japan and they don’t have many traditions around it, so I wondered if there was anything typically Japanese that was similar to North American Halloween traditions. And I think it’s probably O-Bon.
I’m sure some of you are familiar with the name O-Bon festivals are widely held during August in Japan and feature traditional dancing, drum beating, drinking, eating… all the good stuff. But what is not always obvious from those scenes is that O-Bon is a festival for the dead.
O-bon is the Buddhist festival of the dead. During this time, the spirits of deceased family members and ancestors are honoured. The legend of O-Bon is based on a Buddhist legend, myth, true story… about one of Buddha’s disciples named Mokuren. Apparently, somehow Mokuren found out that his dear departed mother had actually ended up in hell. I don’t know the details on why exactly. I bet it’s a good story. And because Mokuren is a good kid and doesn’t want his mother’s soul to suffer for eternity, he performs a ceremony to save her and purify her.
Mokuren’s mother was in the particular hell of the hungry spirits. So he decided he would send her delicious food and water but as soon as she tried to eat or drink anything it would turn into fire. Desperate, Mokuren asked Shakyamuni Buddha for advice on how to help his mother. And the Buddha suggested that once the other disciples were available, they should get together and hold a service offering food to all those that suffer from starvation!
In time, this legend gave rise to traditions of honouring the dead, especially family members with offerings of food and drink. The original tale is said to happen just after the rainy season, in July or August so that’s one reason for the timing. But additionally, there is a certain belief in Japanese lore that the hotter the temperature gets, the thinner the borders between the spirit world and the living realm become. And so, the sweltering August heat was the perfect time.
O-bon is a time for families both born and found to unite and party while paying respect to ancestral graves. Bonfires are frequent, as well as paper lanterns and food offerings of the course. You may have also seen shouryouuma, small figures made of vegetables and toothpicks. Some families place cucumber horses and eggplant cows at their home altars so that spirits stuck in the living realm may ride them back to the spirit world in style! It would be rude to make them walk there. I must say I think it’s an adorable tradition.
But O-bon isn’t without stakes or danger. Much like Halloween has tricks as well as treats and spooky scary things of all sorts, O-bon can turn dark if you’re not careful. After all, spirits are fickle, and you do not want to get on their bad side.
If the spirit of the deceased was well taken care of and then properly respected in death, then it’s good news. That spirit will offer protection to those still living and maybe even a little bit of prosperity if you’re lucky.
But if the spirit was not cared for in life or if they died a violent death, then you better be extra respectful in your worship because unless you can soothe their anger, you are in for a really tough time!
There are many festivals for the dead all around the world. And they are almost always paired with joyful and occasionally rowdy celebrations. All the ones I could think of usually incorporate some type of drinking into the celebration. I mean officially Halloween isn’t about alcohol but let’s face it, among the widely celebrated holidays, it’s definitely the booziest one. And O-bon is the same.
Although there are no costumes, people often wear Yukatas making it somewhat of a dress-up celebration and spirit masks are also a staple. Eating tasty food, both savoury and sweet is a must. Going out at night to see fireworks rounds off the celebration. You see it right, it’s pretty much a Japanese Halloween except it’s more communal and outdoors because it’s summer.
I come from a country where Halloween snowfalls are pretty frequent and having to trick or treat with your costume under your winter coat is something you just have to get used to…
Do you agree? Is Obon just like Halloween? Maybe next year we can celebrate both!