Seasonal Calendar of August

In this 'Seasonal Calendar', I would like to introduce traditional Japanese seasonal events, which come down to Japanese's modern life for the time being.

This Season's Traditional Events

This month, I would like to pick up O-bon ( Japanese Ghost Festival ), one of the two biggest events held in a year, which also is one of the most important events to Japanese. Though O-bon is held either in July or August according to each region, I decided to write about it this month, for it seems to be held from August 13th to 16th generally throughout the country today.

What is O-bon?

O-bon ( Japanese Ghost Festival ) is a Buddhist event held from July 13th to 16th, or from August 13th to 16th, as an event for descendants to pray for their ancestors and the deceased, so that their spirits would not be in pain after their death, and would be able to go to heaven peacefully. The departed spirits are believed to come back to their families during this O-bon period, and although the customs of O-bon slightly differs depending on the sect of Buddhism or locality, it is said that the following customs are still seen nationwide.

On the morning of the first day of O-bon, descendants fix a table called 'Shou-ryou-dana ( literally, spirit shelf )' or 'Bon-dana ( literally, Bon shelf ) for ancestral spirits to stay, when they've returned to their families. A matting made of Manchurian wild rice is set on the table, with ancestral tablets placed on the back center of the matting, and simple dolls made of a cucumber and an eggplant representing respectively, a horse and a cow, displayed in front of the tablets. Seasonal flowers and food are offered on the table as well, together with incense sticks.

After the 'Shou-ryou-dana' is set, people visit their family grave and clean up around them, for this cleaning must be done before it gets dark. When evening comes, they light up lanterns called 'Bon-chou-chin ( literally, Bon lantern )' or 'Bon-tou-rou ( literally, Bon lantern )' in front of Buddhist family altar or 'Shou-ryou-dana', so that the lantern light would play the role of a landmark, when ancestral spirits come home. Descendants then light hemp sticks called 'Ogara ( literally, hemp stems )' with fire in their gardens or in front of their housegates, to burn a small fire called 'Mukae-bi ( literally, welcoming fire )' to lead the ancestral spirits into their houses.

Ancestral spirits that came back to their families, are believed to stay in the house during the second and the third days of O-bon, which is the 14th and the 15th, so families invite a Buddhist monk to their houses to have the monk recite a sutra, and pray for the repose of departed souls during these 2 days. In the evening of the 16th, the last day of O-bon, descendants light 'Ogara ( literally, hemp stems )' again and burn a small fire, this time called 'Okuri-bi ( literally, sending fire )', at the same place where they've burned 'Mukae-bi ( literally, welcoming fire )', to send off the spirits and light the way to the afterworld. Usually later in that evening, 'Bon-odori ( literally, Bon dance )', a traditional Japanese folk dance, is danced in precinct yards.

The Beginning of O-bon

O-bon is a short term for Ura-bon-e, which is a Buddhist tradition to pray for the departed souls of parents and ancestors, and to save the souls of those who are in pain being hanged upside down in hell. The word Ura-bon-e literally meaning the tradition or event of Ura-bon, is said to have come from a Sanskrit word 'ullambana', and it is thought that the letters were replaced by Kanji characters, by simply inheriting the sound of this word. 'Ullambana' is believed today to derive from two Sanskrit words, 'ud' and 'lamb', meaning 'hanged upside down'.

O-bon Related Legend of Moku-ren

The tradiition of Ura-bon-e is said to rely on 'Ura-bon-kyou ( literally, Ura-bon Scriptures), but this Scriptures is not thought as the original teachings of Buddhism from India. Instead, it is either thought as a creation of ancient Chinese researchers, which had been added to the Buddhist Scriptures brought into China from India, while the original sutra was studied and Chinese rendering was being made, or as a collection of teachings extracted from the numerous Scriptures. In this Scriptures of 'Ura-bon-kyou', there is a legend known as 'Moku-ren den-setsu ( literally, the legend of Moku-ren )'. The most common story is as follows.

Moku-ren was a monk and one of the disciples of Buddha. He had mastered divine power from his ascetic trainings, and so he tried to seek for his deceased mother, during an ascetic practice performed with a group of monks. Buddhism teaches that every life repeats reincarnation within six different worlds, including heaven, hell, and the one which we live in. When Moku-ren searched for his mother, he found her in 'Gaki-dou ( literally, the way for Gaki )' a world only of hunger and thirst, and she was suffering from pain.

Moku-ren held out water and food for his starving mother, but each time he held out something, they all turned into a blaze and disappeared just before they reached his mother's mouth. Moku-ren who wanted to save his mother somehow, asked Buddha to teach him how he could save his mother from hunger and thirst. Buddha answered, 'prepare a feast for the past seven generations of your parents and ancestors, on the last day of your ascetic training, to pray for the repose of their departed souls, and then give the feast in charity to other monks. A piece of your charity shall reach your mother's mouth.'

So Moku-ren did as he was told. The monks were so delighted at the feast, that they ate and drank and danced for joy. The joyfulness reached the spirits in 'Gaki-dou' as well as Moku-ren's mother, and she was saved from the pain. The last day of the ascetic training, on which Buddha told Moku-ren to prepare the feast and pray for his ancestors, is believed to be July 15th.

The Derivation of O-bon

O-bon is generally recognized as a Buddhist tradition, however, there are many things of O-bon which can not be explained only by Buddhist teachings. It is thought that this happens because Japanese O-bon is not a genuine Buddhist tradition, but originally was a folk ritual based on ancestor worship in ancient Japan, which later was joined together by the Buddhist tradition of Ura-bon-e. In Japan, there was a time-honored belief of ancestor worship, that departed souls of deceased family members would become guardian deities of the family land, and bring to the family a rich harvest.

It is also said that there used to be an event for descendants, to have contact with ancestral spirits twice a year, on a full moon in early spring and at the beginning of fall, although it is unknown when it had started. The event which was held in early spring, is thought to have turned into the customs of New Year, while the event in autum is thought to have changed into the Buddhist tradition, connected with Ura-bon-e.

Regarding the fact that the schedule of these events were based on lunar calendar, the event held in early spring must have been held around February as we know it today, and the one in autum must have been held around October in our present calendar, which seems to overlap with the season when the preparations for rice planting begins, or the harvest season for rice. From this synchronism, it could be assumed that O-bon is an event based on ancestor worship, which came up from the Japanese rice farming culture.

For the present, the oldest record about O-bon left in Japan, is said to be the one held by Emperor Suiko in 606. This is a personal guess, but from the record that Emperor Suiko held the event twice in a year, the former said event based on rice farming, must have existed in advance of Emperor Suiko's time.

Buddhist Event Born in China

Meanwhile in China, the king of Lian (502-557) is said to have held an Ura-bon event in 538. In China's oldest literary calendar which was written just around the same time, records are said to be left under the date of July 15th, that monks together with general public, held an Ura-bon event and had a Buddhist sermon, with an additional citation from 'Ura-bon-kyou'. This record and the citation from 'Ura-bon-kyou', seem to point out that 'Ura-bon-kyou' had already been established by this time, and that Ura-bon events or in other words O-bon, were also already being held by this time in China.

The Beginning of Ura-bon-e in Japan

Just as many other Japanese traditions have been influenced by Buddhism, the original O-bon event based on ancestor worship that already existed in the early days of Japan, becomes united with the Buddhist traditions of Ura-bon-e, when Buddhism was imported to Japan from China via Korea, around the middle of 5th century. In 733, Emperor Shoumu is said to have made the authorities called Dai-zen-shoku ( literally, the great dish post ), who took care of all food served at Court in those days, prepare and hold an Ura-bon event. Since then, the tradition of Ura-bon-e is said to have become an annual Buddhist event in Japan, held on July 14th of lunar calendar.

During Nara (710-784) and Heian era (794-1185), it became an official event to be held on July 15th of lunar calendar, while in Kamakura era (1185-1333) an additional event of Segaki-e ( literally, charity for departed souls in hell ) was attached. Segaki-e was an event to pray not only for family ancestors, but also for deserted souls of the deceased which had no relation with the family.

And when Edo era (1603-1868) came around, O-bon customs which were practiced only among people in higher status until then, become widely spread among general public. It is thought that the spreading of Buddhist family altars and altar fittings was behind such situations. Candles which were essential as a Buddhist ritual article, also played a large part in the spreading of O-bon, for candles became capable of mass-production during Edo era, and people were able to purchase them for a reasonable price.

Articles and Customs of O-bon

A matting made of Manchurian wild rice is set on a table called 'Shou-ryou-dana ( literally, spirit shelf )' or 'Bon-dana ( literally, Bon shelf ) in times of O-bon, and descendants place 'Ihai ( ancestral tablets )' on the back center of this matting. This table called 'Shou-ryou-dana ( literally, spirit shelf )' or 'Bon-dana ( literally, Bon shelf )' is believed to be the place for ancestral spirits to stay, when they've returned to their families. In cases when there seems to be not enough room to fix 'Shou-ryou-dana' or 'Bon-dana', family altars become an alternative.

Usually on the matting, a horse made of cucumber and a cow made of eggplant are placed in front of the 'Ihai', respectively representing the descendant's wish for ancestral spirits to come home quickly on a swift-footed horse, and to go back slowly to the afterworld on a sluggish cow.

In front of this table, family altar or on the edge of eaves, lanterns called 'Bon-chou-chin ( literally, Bon lantern )' or 'Bon-tou-rou ( literally, Bon lantern )' are lit up, to inform the returning ancestral spirits of the place for them to stay. Descendants also burn a small fire called 'Mukae-bi ( literally, welcoming fire )' in their gardens or in front of their housegates, lighting piled 'Ogara ( literally, hemp sticks )' made of barked hemp stems and join their hands in front of themselves in prayer.

Departed souls are believed to come back to their families riding on the smoke of 'Mukae-bi', and led into the house by this smoke to the family altar or 'Shou-ryou-dana' where they are supposed to stay, without getting lost on the way. When sending them off, descendants would once again light 'Ogara' at the same place where they've burned 'Mukae-bi', this time as an 'Okuri-bi ( literally, sending fire )' to let the smoke lead the spirits of ancestors back to the family grave.

After the ancestral spirits have left their families and descendants in the living world, 'Bon-odori ( literally, Bon dance )', a traditional Japanese folk dance, is generally danced in precinct yards. 'Bon-odori' is thought to have come from a kind of Buddhist ascetic trainigs called 'Gyou-dou ( literally, trainings for Buddhism )', which were practiced by Buddhist monks in Heian era (794-1185), by walking around a statue of Buddha in a circle intoning Buddhist sutra. Later it became established by a monk named Kuuya, as 'Odori-nen-butsu ( literally, dancing prayer to the Buddha )'.

This 'Odori-nen-butsu' which played a role as a prayer to honor departed souls, as well as to save restless souls, becomes widely spread later on, among general pepople by another monk named Ippen. And as they spread along, the intoning of Buddhist sutra was replaced by local folk songs, with people dancing around in circles singing them.

Moreover, combined together with Ura-bon events, it is thought to have changed into 'Nen-butsu-odori ( literally, Buddhist prayer dance )', which anyone can take part in regardless of age or sex. It seems to be thought that this 'Nen-butsu-odori' developed into 'Bon-odori', adding another element given by Ippen, as to free the souls of living people from pain, to its original character of prayer and salvation for the deceased.

O-bon Traditions in Modern Life

In modern Japan, companies tend to close down for a couple of days as summer vacation, mostly before and after August 15th. During these couple of days of O-bon, a massive movement of families leaving large cities like Tokyo, for their hometown where O-bon events are to be held, have become an annual event. Though for younger generations who are unconscious of Buddhist traditions, O-bon simply seems to be regarded as summer vacation.

As for 'Bon-odori', it no longer has the religious atmosphere of Buddhism, such as praying in honor of the deceased or saving restless souls, and its relevance to O-bon is growing less. Recently, 'Bon-odori' are held less in precinct yards, and it seems that it has fallen into the position of plain summer amusement, such as fireworks displays or summer festivals.

Last Modified Aug.10th, 2006

Site of Reference

Bon Festival - Wikipedia


Ghost Festival - Wikipedia


O-bon-tte-Nani? ( Japanese )


O-bon-no Konnna Hanashi Shitteru? ( Japanese )