Bon Festival

Bon Festival (also Bon Matsuri, Obon, Urabon)— Bon Festival is one of the most important events for Japanese people (along with NEW YEAR’S Day); although descended from the Chinese festival of YUE LAAN, it is also sometimes thought of as the Japanese Halloween.

The purpose of Bon is to welcome the return of the ancestors in spirit form; it’s typically a time when FAMILIES gather together (which also occurs at New Year’s). In fact, in The Daughter of the Samurai, Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto describes it as “a happy time for all of Japan.” Bon has been celebrated in Japan since at least A.D. 657 (it was supposedly inaugurated in China in A.D. 538, when it was called “festival of the spirits”).

The period of Bon is at Moon 7, Days 13–15, or usually from August 13 to 15 (although the date is sometimes July 13 to 15, especially in America). Most government offices and companies are closed during this time, and many Japanese companies provide their employees with a week-long Obon holiday. In Buddhism the spirits of the dead are believed to return to their earthly homes on August 13, stay for three days and then depart for heaven again on the night of August 15. The preparations begin a day or so prior to the actual start of Bon, as houses are cleaned in anticipation of the spirits’ return, and new clothes are purchased; butsudan (Buddhist family altars) are traditionally decorated with little animal figures made from vegetables, tea is poured and fresh food laid on the butsudan for the spirits. “Spirit altars” are set before the butsudan, and a priest may be asked to come and read a sutra. No life is taken on the first day, and gifts are given throughout the festival. Bon is sometimes referred to as the “Festival of Lanterns” (or “Feast of Lanterns”), because lanterns are lighted in cemeteries, and small FIRES are sometimes made at doorways to welcome ghostly visitors. On the last night of the festival lighted CANDLES are sent sailing off on floating lotus leaves (or shoryobuni, meaning “boats of the blessed ghosts”); as each little “boat” bursts into flames, the spirit contained in it is supposed to be released to return to the heavenly abode.

As with Halloween, Bon has many regional variations. For example, in Nagasaki, families that lost a relative during the past year make “spirit boats” with many lanterns to carry the soul to heaven. In the harbor front at Ohato, hundreds of elaborate boatlike floats pulled by families and friends make a parade through the city, with firecrackers lit along the way (a custom borrowed from the Chinese residents of Nagasaki). A BONFIRE is lit on the slopes of Mt. Nyogatake, in the shape of the Chinese character meaning “large.” At Nachi Shrine in Katsura, twelve huge torches are lit by whiterobed priests.

Possibly the most popular custom at Bon is the bon odori, or folk dancing; these rites are performed to welcome the returning ancestors’ souls. The dances are usually performed by large groups of people wearing kimonos and straw hats; dancers often move in circles around the musicians or around a temporary platform set up in a broad, open space. The bon odori (which is supposedly joined by the dead as well) are first mentioned in Japanese literature about the late fifteenth century, and are based on the Buddhist legend of Moggallana, who wanted to help his mother’s spirit escape from the realm of the Preta (“world of hungry devils”). He went to the Buddha, who advised him to make offerings to monks. He did, and his mother was reborn into Buddha’s beautiful land, where she lived peacefully and happily. Seeing this, Moggallana danced for joy and was joined by the monks.

Although Bon is typically celebrated with great joy, it is also a time (just as the Halloween season is in western culture) when horror films are typically released; features by Toei, Daiei and Shintoho featured spectral cats, vengeful female GHOSTS and haunted swamps.


The Halloween Encyclopedia Second Edition written by Lisa Morton © 2011 Lisa Morton. All rights reserved