Bon Festival

"Obon" redirects here. For the Spanish municipality, see Obón.
For Bonfest, a festival to commemorate Bon Scott, see Kirriemuir.
Bon Festival

Obon in the late Edo period
Also called Obon
Observed by Japan
Type Religious, Cultural
Significance Honors the spirits of one's ancestors
  • 15 August
  • 15 July (Kantō)
  • 15th day of the 7th lunar month
Frequency annual
Related to Ghost Festival
Qingming Festival
Kyoto's Gozan no Okuribi bonfire lit during the Obon festival
(video) Neighborhood Bon Odori festival in Adachi-ku, Tokyo (2014)
Participants place candle-lit lanterns in the Sasebo River during Obon.
An Obon offering

Obon (お盆) or just Bon () is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one's ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors' graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori.

The festival of Obon lasts for three days; however its starting date varies within different regions of Japan. When the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era, the localities in Japan reacted differently and this resulted in three different times of Obon. "Shichigatsu Bon" (Bon in July) is based on the solar calendar and is celebrated around 15 July in eastern Japan (Kantō region such as Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku region), coinciding with Chūgen. "Hachigatsu Bon" (Bon in August) is based on the lunar calendar, is celebrated around the 15th of August and is the most commonly celebrated time. "Kyu Bon" (Old Bon) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so differs each year. "Kyu Bon" is celebrated in areas like the northern part of the Kantō region, Chūgoku region, Shikoku, and the Okinawa Prefecture. These three days are not listed as public holidays but it is customary that people are given leave.[1]


Obon is a shortened form of Ullambana (Japanese: 于蘭盆會 or 盂蘭盆會, urabon'e). It is Sanskrit for "hanging upside down" and implies great suffering.[2] The Japanese believe they should ameliorate the suffering of the "Urabanna".

Bon Odori originates from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), a disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering.[3] Greatly disturbed, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and, thus, saw his mother's release. He also began to see the true nature of her past selflessness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. The disciple, happy because of his mother's release and grateful for his mother's kindness, danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or "Bon Dance", a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated. See also: Ullambana Sutra.

As Obon occurs in the heat of the summer, participants traditionally wear yukata, or light cotton kimonos. Many Obon celebrations include a huge carnival with rides, games, and summer festival food like watermelon.[4]

Families sent their ancestor's spirits back to their permanent dwelling place under the guidance of fire: this rite was known as sending fire (Okuribi). Fire, which marked the commencement (Mukaebi) as well as the closing of the festival.[5]

Bon Odori

Bon Odori Dancers (August 2004 at Imazu Primary School in Osaka)

Bon Odori (Japanese: 盆踊り), meaning simply Bon dance, is a style of dancing performed during Obon. Originally a Nenbutsu folk dance to welcome the spirits of the dead, the style of celebration varies in many aspects from region to region. Each region has a local dance, as well as different music. The music can be songs specifically pertinent to the spiritual message of Obon, or local min'yō folk songs. Consequently, the Bon dance will look and sound different from region to region. Hokkaidō is known for a folk-song known as "Sōran Bushi". The song "Tokyo Ondo" takes its namesake from the capital of Japan. "Gujo Odori" in Gujō in Gifu prefecture is famous for all night dancing. "Gōshū Ondo" is a folk song from Shiga prefecture. Residents of the Kansai area will recognize the famous "Kawachi ondo". Tokushima in Shikoku is very famous for its "Awa Odori", and in the far south, one can hear the "Ohara Bushi" of Kagoshima.

The way in which the dance is performed is also different in each region, though the typical Bon dance involves people lining up in a circle around a high wooden scaffold made especially for the festival called a yagura. The yagura is usually also the bandstand for the musicians and singers of the Obon music. Some dances proceed clockwise, and some dances proceed counter-clockwise around the yagura. Some dances reverse during the dance, though most do not. At times, people face the yagura and move towards and away from it. Still some dances, such as the Kagoshima Ohara dance, and the Tokushima Awa Odori, simply proceed in a straight line through the streets of the town.

The dance of a region can depict the area's history and specialization. For example, the movements of the dance of the Tankō Bushi (the "coal mining song") of old Miike Mine in Kyushu show the movements of miners, i.e. digging, cart pushing, lantern hanging, etc.; the above-mentioned Soran Bushi mimics the work of fishermen such as hauling in the nets. All dancers perform the same dance sequence in unison.

There are other ways in which a regional Bon dance can vary. Some dances involve the use of different kinds of fans, others involve the use of small towels called tenugui which may have colorful designs. Some require the use of small wooden clappers, or "kachi-kachi" during the dance. The "Hanagasa Odori" of Yamagata is performed with a straw hat that has been decorated with flowers.

The music that is played during the Bon dance is not limited to Obon music and min'yo; some modern enka hits and kids' tunes written to the beat of the "ondo" are also used to dance to during Obon season.

The Bon dance tradition is said to have started in the later years of the Muromachi period as a public entertainment. In the course of time, the original religious meaning has faded, and the dance has become associated with summer.

The Bon dance performed in the Okinawa Islands is known as eisā. Similarly, the Yaeyama Islands have Angama.

Celebrations outside Japan


In Argentina, the Bon Festival is celebrated by Japanese communities during the summer of the southern hemisphere. The biggest festival is held in Colonia Urquiza, in La Plata. It takes place on the sports ground of the La Plata Japanese School. The festival also includes taiko shows and typical dances.[6]


Bon Odori Festival is celebrated every year in many Japanese communities all over Brazil, as Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan. São Paulo is the main city of the Japanese community in Brazil, and also features the major festival in Brazil, with street odori dancing and matsuri dance. It also features Taiko and Shamisen contests. And of course, this festival is also a unique experience of a variety of Japanese food & drinks, art and dance.


Main article: Ghost Festival


The Korean version of the Bon celebration is known as Baekjung. Participants present offerings at Buddhist shrines and temples, and masked dances are performed. It is as much an agricultural festival as a religious one.[7][8]


In Malaysia, Bon Odori Festivals are also celebrated every year in Esplanade (Padang Kota Lama) Penang, Matsushita Corp Stadium in Shah Alam, Selangor, and also Universiti Malaysia Sabah at Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. This celebration, which is a major attraction for the state of Selangor, is the brain child of the Japanese Expatriate & Immigrant's Society in Malaysia. In comparison to the celebrations in Japan, the festival is celebrated on a much smaller scale in Penang, Selangor and Sabah, and is less associated with Buddhism and more with Japanese culture. Held mainly to expose locals to a part of Japanese culture, the festival provides the experience of a variety of Japanese food and drinks, art and dance, with the vast number of Japanese companies in Malaysia taking part to promote their products.

United States and Canada

Bon Odori festivals are also celebrated in North America, particularly by Japanese-Americans or Japanese-Canadians affiliated with Buddhist temples and organizations. Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) temples in the U.S. typically celebrate Bon Odori with both religious Obon observances and traditional Bon Odori dancing around a yagura. Many temples also concurrently hold a cultural and food bazaar providing a variety of cuisine and art, also to display features of Japanese culture and Japanese-American history.[9] Performances of taiko by both amateur and professional groups have recently become a popular feature of Bon Odori festivals.[10][11] Bon Odori festivals are usually scheduled anytime between July and September. Bon Odori melodies are also similar to those in Japan; for example, the dance Tankō Bushi from Kyushu is also performed in the U.S. In California, due to the diffusion of Japanese immigration, Bon Odori dances also differ from Northern to Southern California, and some are influenced by American culture, such as "Baseball Ondo".

Even Ke'ei, a remote place, [12] on the western side of Hawaii, comes alive when bon dance is held under the monkey pod tree of the Buddhist mission & cemetery every August.

The "Bon season" is an important part of the present-day culture and life of Hawaii. It was brought there by the plantation workers from Japan, and now the bon dance events are held among the five major islands (Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Maui and Hawaii) on weekend evenings from June to August. They are held usually at Buddhist missions, but sometimes at Shintoist missions or at shopping centers. [13] [14] At some Buddhist missions, the dance is preceded by a simple ritual where the families of the deceased in the past year burn incense for remembrance, but otherwise the event is non-religious. The songs played differ among the regions --- one or two hour bon dance in the western part of the Big Island (in and around Kailua Kona), for example, typically starts with Tankō Bushi, continues with songs such as Kawachi Otoko Bushi (using wooden clappers), Yukata Odori (using the towels given at the donation desk), Asatoya Yunta and Ashibina from Okinawa Prefecture (reflecting the fact that many Okinawan descendants live in Hawaii), Pokémon Ondo for children, zumba songs for the young, Beautiful Sunday, etc., and ends with Fukushima Ondo celebrating abundant harvest. [15] The participants, Japanese descendants and the people of all races, dance in a big circle around the yagura, the central tower set up for the dance, from which recorded songs are broadcast and, most of the time, the taiko group accompany the songs playing drums. In larger cities, bon dance lessons are given by volunteers before the actual events. [16]

Some Japanese museums may also hold Obon festivals, such as the Morikami Japanese Museum[17] in Florida.

See also


  1. Bon A-B-C, 2002,, Japan,
  2. Chen, K 1968, ‘Filial Piety in Chinese Buddhism’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, p88.
  3. What is Obon, 1998, Shingon Buddhist International Institute, California,
  4. Obon: Japanese festival of the dead, 2000, Asia Society,
  5. HUR, Nam-Lin. Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan: Buddhism, Anti-Christianity, and the Danka System. Harvard University Asia Center, 2007. p. 192. ISBN 9780674025035.
  6. "Una tradición que se afirma en la Ciudad", El Día, Sunday, January 9, 2010.
  7. MobileReference (2007). Encyclopedia of Observances, Holidays and Celebrations from MobileReference. MobileReference. p. 490. ISBN 978-1-60501-177-6. Retrieved 2 April 2013.
  8. Dong-Il Cho (2005). Korean Mask Dance. Ewha Womans University Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-89-7300-641-0. Retrieved 2 April 2013.
  9. Nakao, Annie, "Japanese Americans keeping Obon tradition alive", San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, July 8, 2005
  10. Schulze, Margaret, "Obon Story: Honoring ancestors, connecting to our community", in the Nikkei West newspaper, San Jose, California, Vol. 10, No. 14, July 25th, 2002 Archived August 7, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. "Obon Basics" - San Jose Taiko, California Archived August 8, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  12. Keei Beach: Kona's Best-Kept Secret
  13. Hawai'i Summer 2016 Bon Dance Schedule
  14. 2016 Obon season calendar in Hawaii
  15. "Fukushima Ondo in Hawaii" (YouTube)
  16. Bon Dance Overseas --- Hawaii (in ten web pages) (in Japanese)


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