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

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  • Nanami

    hmm interesting. I know I have a discussion in class coming up on this. I know we have memorial day (which is geared to war-themed stuff more than just our passed away loved ones) but traditionally we don’t really have a specific period in American culture that is set aside for remembering our family and loved ones. My family always used Thanksgiving though.

    • Donald Ash

      Yeah, that’s true Nanami. Memorial Day is the closest thing we have to an Obon, but I think for the vast majority of Americans (especially those who don’t have any ties to the military) it’s more about the day off than paying respects (I forget, do they cook out on Memorial Day? Or is that Labor Day? See? I’ve been in Japan too long! LOL).

      But Thanksgiving is about as family oriented as it gets. Man, I can’t remember the last time I was home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. This will be the fourth year in a row that I haven’t been. Ahhh, family friends, turkey, Mama’s peach pie, sigh…

  • Kayla

    There was an Obon Festival here in Minnesota, at one of our parks/zoos. I really wanted to attend but it conflicted with my college stuff – so next year!

    I would say, after reading a lot about it, that it’s very similar to the Celtic Samhain, still observed by many a modern day Pagan and Wiccan. From October 31 to November 1 (you non pagans know it as Halloween) we observe a night when our departed loved ones and spirits come back from beyond the veil to visit. It’s also a good time to honor one’s ancestors.

  • G

    Obon to Japanese is more similar to what Thanksgiving is to Americans. If there are any 2 holidays you *should* go home to in a Japanese household, it’s Obon and New Years. For Americans, I wager it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas (shame that they’re so close together).

    I think in the religious or spiritual/cultural sense, it makes sense to parallel it to Day of the Dead (festival wise) or like Kayla said, the Celtic Samhain is a very good comparison. But generally speaking Americans just don’t have that culture ingrained as deeply as in the sense of paying homage to the place of burial and/or strong connections to their ancestory. It stems from that “Individualism” philosophy Americans live by–which might help understand why Japanese people are so “group” oriented as opposed to Americans being more about being an individual.

  • momomommo


    • thejapanguy

      Hi momomommo. Obon is all over Japan. I must have overlooked that when I was writing.

    • Chiemi Honda

      Um…..NATIONAL holiday usually means all over the nation

  • hey yo

    thanks buddy that helped me a lot now i understand it a bit better now

    • thejapanguy

      I’m glad! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • yo

    thanks this information is great

    • Donald Ash

      THANK YOU!! 😀

  • what up

    but which area/ areas in japan is obon

    • Donald Ash

      Obon is a Japan-wide holiday. When/if employees actually have an Obon vacaction, varies from company to company.

    • thejapanguy

      Obon is a national holiday in Japan, so it’s all across the country. Depending on where you work, your vacation may start on a different day, but it’s all around the same time.

  • Pingback: Kyoto Part #1 : Street photography | somedisko()

    • Donald Ash

      I bet you had an awesome time. Kyoto rocks!

  • Brendan Surfer

    Halloween and Obon are quite similar. They both honour the dead. This article also shows a possible connection to the Global Flood where all perished apart from Noah and his family. http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/halloween/halloween-history

  • Johnny LoveFive

    America NEEDS Obon and other customs from Japan, it’s a VERY disrespectful society…

  • Chiemi Honda

    If you come to Hawaii, we have obon festivals at all the hongwanji and other Buddhist churches from July to august. The sensei or reverend will do a service to pray for the visiting souls and then the dancing will start. … also the lantern floating is also done here. … it’s a huge thing done on the north Shore and another one on magic island side on Oahu. …

  • David

    Hi, where in Japan is best to go to see/experience this festival and specifically see the paper lanterns

  • LPS

    In Catholicism, All Souls Day (November 1) is a traditional day to visit the gavesites of deceased relatives or friends and/or attend mass to offer prayers for the souls of the departed.

  • Anthony Potter

    Obon is celebrated at different times in Japan. Okinawa will celebrate next week whereas the mainland will be later.

  • Thanks

    Thanks this helped me with my assignment

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