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Beautiful lanterns: Bon-odori festval at Higashiyama Onsen (Fukushima) 17 August 2009. Photo by: Yoichiro Akiyama/source
Beautiful lanterns: Bon-odori festval at Higashiyama Onsen (Fukushima) 17 August 2009. Photo by: Yoichiro Akiyama/source

Why is every Japanese ghost story set during the summer times? It’s not really, but a staggering amount is!

Obon (Japanese:お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. The sound of wind chimes is heard and there is shaved ice on every corner in the summer heat. The cicadas sings and the Japanese takes the time to tell their many ghost stories in the hot summer nights.

Fun fact, some says that telling a chilling ghost story in the hot humid summers in Japan, will help cool you down, because of the goose bumps. And because of that, a trend in the Edo period started with telling ghost stories in the theaters in the summer times, called Kaidan.

It is one of the few events on the Japanese calendar that focuses on the importance of family and is there to give the families in Japan time together. It is not a public holiday, but customary to be given leave to travel to your hometown, back to your family. Both the living, as well as the dead.

The celebrations has been going on every summer for over 500 years. The exact dates changes according to where you live though because the lunar calendar was changed in favor to the Gregorian calendar instead. . In eastern Japan, it is held 15th of July, but in the western part it’s held on August 15. However, in Okinawa and the Amami Islands it’s different again and follow the Chinese way to celebrate on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month like their ghost festival. In common though, the festival lasts for three days.

It is believed that during these three days the ancestors spirits return to the world to visit their relatives. In this time the veil between the spirit world and the world of the living is at its thinnest and therefore the spirit can pass through.

Celebrations today

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Floating lanterns: Tōrō nagashi float in the river in Hiroshima, as part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony in 2009. Photo: 藤谷良秀(Yoshihide Fujitani) /source
Floating lanterns: Tōrō nagashi float in the river in Hiroshima, as part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony in 2009. Photo: 藤谷良秀(Yoshihide Fujitani) /source

There is not only an ancestral celebration from the old days they keep alive. Horror movies takes over the cinema, Kabuki theaters put on their traditional ghost plays and teenagers dares each other to visit the cemeteries at night. The paranormal hunters are about and the belief in spirits reach an all time high. But there are also less sinister traditions that comes with the festival.

To prepare for the return of the ancestors, the Japanese clean the grave sites and gives a path to them back to the house in a ritual called mukae-bon. A spirit altar is put up back at the home and offerings like fruit, flowers and incense is given. In some regions they light up huge fires outside the houses instead of lanterns.

The celebration begins with Mukaebi, which is lightening fires to guide spirits home. Often in the form of lanterns hung in front of the houses. When Obon ends, floating lanters is often used to guide them back to the spirit world, called okuri-bon.

On the final evening it is thought that placing floating lanterns down the rivers will help guide the spirits back to the spirit world. This tradition has gained a lot of popularity in modern time. This ceremony is called Tōrō nagashi 灯籠流し


Feeding the Hungry Ghosts

One of the things the festival is for, is to ease the suffering of spirits. To do this they have to perform the ritual of segaki 施餓鬼, meaning feeding the hungry ghosts, otherwise known as a vengeful spirit, or in the western tradition: a poltergeist. It is a ritual of Japanese Buddhist tradition.

Read also: The Story of Tu-Po – The Hungry Ghost

Read also: Onryo – The Japanese Vengeful Spirit

During the festival, the ritual is performed at Buddhist temples and more offerings are given to the hungry ghosts: Rice and water. This is for the muenbotoke, or the ghosts with no living relatives that have no one to welcome them.

Bon Odori

The Bon Dance 盆踊りis a dancing style performed during Obon. It comes from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana, or simply Mokuren. He was a disciple of Buddha and used his powers to look into the spirit realm. There he saw his mother, and saw she had become a hungry ghost. He asked Buddha what to do. Buddha said to give offerings to the monks that completed their summer retreat on the 15th day of the 7th month. Mokuren did it and it worked. His mother was freed from the suffering of being a hungry ghost. He burst out dancing from pure joy.

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Bon Odori: Scene from dance festival at the Hanazono Shrine, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Yukata-clad people dance in circles around the yagura as the music plays.
Bon Odori: Scene from dance festival at the Hanazono Shrine, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Yukata-clad people dance in circles around the yagura as the music plays.

The dance has so many variations and each region perform their local dance with their own music, however, the Japanese taiko drum is often used.

Since it is so different from region to region, the dance will look so different as well. But very often it is people lining up in a circle around a wooden scaffold made for the festival called Yagura. The dance can also include the history of the region as well. Like mimicking fishing in fishing areas, dance moves reminding of digging in coal mining areas and the likes. All in common though, their intent is to honor their ancestors and those that came before us.


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