Introducing Obon

The middle of August sees in one of Japan’s major holiday periods — Obon. Also known as bon (without the Japanese honorific O or お), it’s a period used to honour one’s ancestors. More specifically, it is a time when the spirits of ancestors are believed to visit the family home. 

Much like many other occasions in the Japanese calendar, the date in which it is celebrated can change from region to region due to the switch from the Lunar calendar to the modern day Gregorian calendar; however, it is widely celebrated as a three day event from the 13th of August to the 16th of August. 

Despite maybe an initial assumption that Obon is a sombre experience, it’s not entirely the case. While paying respects to family members who have come before is certainly the main focus, it’s a period of celebration too; festivals arise, street dancing performed, and is a chance for much of the population to return home for a break. 

What happens during Obon?

Obon is a Japanese event that has been held annually for over 500 years. The three-day ‘celebration’ in which many families get together in preparation for a home visit from past relatives, is born from buddhist beliefs. The Japanese have often found reverence in the natural and spiritual world; as such, many homes in Japan have a Kamidana for shinto or a Butsudan for buddhism. It is here where the spirits of ancestors supposedly visit. 

In preparation for their arrival, many households will perform various tasks; visiting and cleaning the graves of relatives, light small fires or hang lanterns outside their home in order to help guide the spirits, and place food offerings in their respective home altars. When the Obon period comes to an end, fires or lanterns are once again lit or are sent down the river, both of which are to help guide the spirits back home. 

One of the more peculiar traditions of Obon is that of the cucumber horse and the eggplant cow. Four toothpicks are inserted into each vegetable and placed within the home; the cucumber represents a horse for arriving ancestors in turn representing a faster arrival, and the eggplant represents a cow in turn representing a slower departure allowing for a longer time before departing. 

On the lighter side of things, the Bon Odori is a style of dance performed during the Obon celebrations. It is a chance for the town to come together to welcome the spirits of the ancestors but to also take part themselves as everyone is encouraged to do. 

Cucumbers and eggplants each with four toothpicks on the bottom.
Cucumber and eggplant animals
Katorisi, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Origin story of Obon

We now know that Obon has its roots based in Buddihist culture and so can reliably say its origin is based in India (of which buddhism also originated). However, before arriving in Japan it was China that became exposed to many buddhist practices. It was in fact from here that Obon developed in Japan from the similar Chinese celebration of the Ghost Festival. 

There is an old Buddhist tale that is referenced in every version of celebration across Asia. The story goes as follows: 

A disciple of the Buddha named Maha Maudgalyayana wished to look upon his deceased mother. Using powers he possessed, he looked into the afterlife to find she had fallen into the realm of the Hungry Ghosts. (This is a term that derives from Sanskrit to mean hanging upside down and implies suffering.) Wishing to help her, he paid a visit to the Buddha to ask how it could be done. He was tasked with making offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just returned from a summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. Once completed he looked into the afterlife to see that his mother been released from the realm of Hungry Ghosts. Elated at his success, Maha danced in celebration.

Within this story are a few details that directly relate to how Obon is celebrated. The most obvious is the dance performed in celebration where the Bon Odori derives from. Next, offerings made to monks or altars still form a central practice in the modern day customs. Finally, although not directly mentioned, the lighting of fires and lanterns relate to the desire to prevent spirits and ancestors from losing themselves in the realm of Hungry Ghosts. 

artwork depicting historical Kyoto with a welcome fire on the mountainside for Obon.
A print by Hasegawa Sadanobu depicting a famous welcoming fire in Kyoto


Although it’s primarily a Buddhist occasion, it has subtly merged and found similarities within Shinto (Japan’s oldest religion/way of life). Combined with the instinctual nature of the Japanese for respecting the past and the natural world, Obon has become one of the most significant times of the year in the Japanese calendar. While not every household will follow tradition to the letter, Obon has always been about family whether past or present. This is what makes Obon a celebration over anything else.