What is Obon?

By Donnie | Articles

What is Obon? お盆は何ですか?


Vacation-lovers rejoice! Tis the time for one of Japan’s longest “breaks.” Well I guess I don’t really want to call Obon a break, but for many foreigners that’s exactly what it is. For Japanese natives, though, Obon has a slightly different meaning.

Obon* is one of Japan’s most well-known holidays. It can translate to mean The Lantern Festival or The Festival of the Dead. Essentially, Obon is a day to honor those who have passed away.

During Obon, it’s been quite common for me to talk to students who were on their way to visit family and to visit grave-sites of their loved ones.

*The word “bon” (ぼん or 盆) means lantern the “o” (お) can like an honorific

When is Obon?

I sometimes get confused with the dates because I want to say that the exact observation dates can differ slightly between prefectures, but in general, goes from Obon goes from August 13th to August 16th.

How Do People Celebrate Obon?

Well, I wouldn’t really call it a celebration as much as I would a show of respect. During Obon, people spend time with their families, going to grave-sites together to honor relatives who have passed away. One ceremony that I have seen (only on TV, unfortunately) is the Japanese custom of lighting paper lanterns and sending them out to sea (in honor those ancestors) who have passed away (did anybody see the Karate Kid II? Mr. Miyagi did this in his village in Okinawa). On television here, the Lantern ceremonies look as fascinating as they are beautiful.

I couldn’t really think of a parallel custom to Obon in the United States, but that’s all a part of the appeal of being here, seeing differences in culture. I am often guilty of treating Obon as just another holiday, since my relatives don’t live here. However, Obon it’s one of the holidays/customs that I have a lot of respect for here in Japan. Taking time out to show reverence to those who came before you is a pretty noble idea for a holiday I would say.

What are your plans for Obon?

Donald Ash

About the Author