Obon Festival In Japan

My wife’s family observes Obon each August. Foods are prepared and prayers for their loved ones who have passed on are prayed for and remembrances of them are observed. I have known of the Obon festival for many years and her family never forgets to participate. I decided a while back to look deeper into the beliefs and customs surrounding Obon and how it integrates into Japanese society.

Japanese culture is very rich and filled with many different amazing festivals. Obon festival is one of them. And if you are someone curious about Japanese culture you probably have a lot of questions about the Obon festival as I did. Well, that is what I am here for. In this article, I will be exploring and answering your questions that I also had related to the Obon festival in Japan.

Obon, also known as the Bon festival, is a Japanese Buddhist tradition. It is a day where the Japanese celebrate the spirits of their ancestors. There are many customs and traditions to this holiday, and although it has stemmed from the Buddhist religion it is celebrated by all Japanese people.

Obon is observed by those who are religious and those who are not.

I hope that introduction piqued your interest in this topic even more. I am sure you still have a lot more questions. And there indeed is a lot more to know about the Bon festival. So keep reading ahead as I will answer all your questions related to the Obon festival in Japan.

What Is The Japanese Obon Festival?

Obon or Bon festival is an annual holiday in Japan. It is a Buddhist tradition. In this festival, the Japanese people come together and celebrate the spirits of all their ancestors.

It is believed that the spirits of the dead come back to this world to visit every year during Obon. And that is what this festival celebrates. This originated in Buddhist traditions but now is celebrated among many Japanese people in general.

What Are The 5 Traditions Of The Obon Festival?

The 5 main traditions of Obon are the welcoming fire (Mukaebi), the offerings (Ozen), family grave visits (Ohakamairi), Bon dances (Bon Odori), and the farewell of the spirits (Okuribi/Toro Nagashi).

While the festivities differ a lot from region to region and religion to religion, these 5 traditional ceremonies are the core elements of the Bon festival throughout Japan. These 5 rituals are the staples of the celebration of Obon.

Bon Dance Tokushima

What Is The Purpose Of The Obon Festival?

The purpose of the Obon festival is to celebrate ancestors. It is not a festival of mourning but a festival of celebration. This is when people all across Japan celebrate the spirits of their ancestors.

It is believed that the spirits of our ancestors come to visit our world during the three days of the Obon. And the festival is held to commemorate their lives and spirits, to welcome their spirits into this world, and then say goodbye again.

Is Obon A Religious Holiday?

As a whole Obon has its roots in Japanese Buddhist traditions. That is where it originated from. It has strong Buddhist ties, but over time the religious ties of the festival have loosened. And now Obon is celebrated by almost all Japanese people in general.

There are strong Buddhist ties to the Bon festival. But, Obon is also celebrated very differently among people of different religions and regions in Japan. Obon is now celebrated more as a cultural event rather than a religious ceremony.

What Do Japanese Eat During Obon?

There are no set foods during Obon. The dead are offered the same food their family eats. There are also decorative animals and mementos made from cucumbers and eggplants which are also given as offerings.

In the offering part of Obon, the dead are offered their favorite food and clean water. It is often the same food the family of the departed eats. There are also animals made from cucumbers and eggplants along with skewers offered to the dead. This is more of a decoration than anything else.

Is Obon Shinto?

As a general rule Obon is not part of the Shinto religion in Japan. Obon has its roots in Japanese Buddhist traditions, but now it is observed by all Japanese people in general. It does have some Shinto traditions incorporated in it.

Over time Obon has lost its close ties to Japanese Buddhism. Although the Buddhist influences are very prominent it is now celebrated mainly as a cultural activity.

Torii Gate Found At Shinto Shrines

Who Celebrates Obon Festival?

Obon festival is celebrated mainly by the Japanese people. Obon is a Japanese festival that originated in Japan. It is also celebrated by Japanese people who live in other countries.

The Bon festival is a holiday completely native to Japan. It is an important part of Japanese culture and tradition. A few other East Asian countries celebrate similar festivals but Obon is mainly seen in Japan exclusively.

Who Started Obon?

As a whole, the Obon festival originated in the Japanese Buddhist tradition. In Buddhist myths the start of Obon can be attributed to one of Buddha’s disciples; Maha Maudgalyayana.

It is said that Maha Maudgalyayana, one of Buddha’s disciples, once used his powers to look upon his deceased mother. There he saw that she was suffering. Buddha advised him to make offerings to his mother on a certain date. Once her sufferings were removed because of the offerings, the disciple danced in joy. Thus began the Obon tradition.

When Was Obon Invented?

Obon originated from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana in the Buddhist myth. It is a festival that has been celebrated in Japan for over 500 years.

Shichigatsu Bon is celebrated according to the solar calendar, Hachigatsu Bon is celebrated according to the lunar calendar, and Kyū Bon is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar. This festival has been celebrated by the Japanese people for many centuries.

Duty is heavy as a mountain but Death is lighter than a feather

japanese proverb

How Does Japan Celebrate Day Of The Dead?

Obon or the Bon festival can be called Japan’s “Day Of The Dead”. This festival is how the Japanese people celebrate the spirits of their deceased ancestors every year. This festival celebrates the lives and spirits of those who have passed away.

People all across Japan celebrate the arrival of the spirits of the dead during Obon. They welcome the spirits, then there are dances and offerings to the spirits, and there are also lanterns lit to guide the dead. The method of celebration may be different but the themes are definitely similar to the “Day Of The Dead”.

Why Do Japanese Light Lanterns After Death?

The Japanese people light lanterns or special candles both at funerals and during the Obon festival, which is a celebration of the dead. The lanterns are there to serve as a guide for the spirits of the dead.

At the start of the Obon festival, lanterns are hung so that the spirits can find their way to their loved ones. And at the end of Obon, floating lanterns are sent away to guide the spirits back to the afterlife. These lanterns serve as a symbol of guidance to the spirits traveling between the two worlds.

On the last day of the Japanese Obon ceremony, lanterns are sent into the river for ancestors

What Do Japanese Wear During Obon?

The traditional summer festival clothes of Japan are what most people wear during Obon. You can see mostly Yukatas, Happi Coats, and Kimonos during the Bon festival.

There aren’t exactly specific ceremonial clothes for Obon. So, the traditional festive clothes are what most people wear.

Japanese Yukata

What Is The Reason Why Japanese People Dance Bon Odori?

Bon Odori is the dance that Japanese people dance during the Bon festival. It is a dance meant to celebrate the spirits of the dead ancestors. It is a tradition that is directly tied to the beliefs that started Obon.

Bon Odori literally means “Bon Dance”. In the story of Maha Maudgalyayana, this dance is what started the Obon festival. Different localities have different styles of music and dancing for Bon Odori.

Where Is Obon Celebrated In Japan?

Obon is celebrated throughout Japan. Although it varies from region to region. Both the style of celebration and the dates change from region to region so you need to keep an eye out for that.


There are three different Bon festivals; Shichigatsu Bon, Hachigatsu Bon, and Kyū Bon. Different regions celebrate one of the three kinds. Obon is also not a national holiday and is more celebrated as a tradition. If you want to observe Obon in Japan you have to keep an eye out for which one the region you are in celebrates.

The Japanese Obon festival is an amazingly beautiful tradition. It celebrates the ancestors’ spirits every year and the entire communities band together to make this holiday wonderful and fascinating to outsiders.

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.