In the children’s picture book Teach me Enma-sama, written and illustrated by Hiromi Tanaka, Enma who is the King of Hell in Buddhist mythology teaches children how to behave in a “proper” way by scaring the living shit out of them. The picture book is intended for 5 to 8-year-olds and is partly formatted as a guide for parents to discipline their children as well. The book teaches children what they shouldn’t do and how society works through at times humorous but more often horrifying descriptions about Enma and hell.
Some of the book can be a surprisingly thoughtful
approach for children to think about bullying, cheating, lying – things many children
tend to do without noticing or understanding the moral implications and
The book itself is
inspired by Hokku-kyo, which is the
oldest Buddhist scripture, and Buddhism itself drops many tips about raising
children. It furthermore, introduces things to teach one’s children, such as why
they shouldn’t be doing “bad” things, social codes, and etiquette.
The book covers 31
topics within three chapters, with roughly one subject per page, with a speech
from Enma-sama, following explanation for kids, a message for parents when
reading with children as well as the original untranslated sentences from
Buddhist scriptures such as the Hokku-kyo.
Bad things children tend to do without noticing is addressed in chapter 1. From not having likes and dislikes about food or leaving unfinished food, to being quiet in public places. It teaches them to become aware of others and that they are not the center of the universe.
Chapter 2 covers topics
about the evil that lives in people’s minds, such as jealousy and hatred. It
puts a great emphasis on not comparing oneself to others and recognizing that
others are not objects but human beings with feelings, just like ourselves. It
also mentions that people should stay positive.
Finally, in chapter 3, the
evil that dwells in words. Such as that one should be careful when speaking, as
once a person says something, it is impossible to unsay it. Thus is tell the
reader not to lie, verbally abuse others, as well as to stay true to oneself.
All of this is generally well good, except for the glaring fact that some of the pictures and descriptions provided in the book wouldn’t be out of place in a Saw or similar horror movie, yet are in a book that is intended for young children…………
In conclusion, the book gives a somewhat universal idea of what is good and what is bad, abet in a very black and white fashion, while accompanied by nightmare inducing depictions.
Late July marks the official start of O-bon, the Festival of the Dead, where Japanese people visit the graves of their ancestors and/or pay their respects to the recently departed. For Tokyoites, August is the time of celebration.
It’s also a semi-official vacation for many, and the trains out of Tokyo fill-up with families going back home to visit the living and the dead.
Some Japanese families who can’t afford to travel put offerings on the family Buddhist altar and welcome their departed in-laws into the home for a few days before wishing them farewell. (In some cases, when the visiting ghosts won’t leave, they have to call in a Buddhist exorcist to kick them out. Maybe.)At JSRC, we thought you’d like to know a little bit more about this festive occasion and why it’s celebrated. *Editor’s note: The 90% well-researched version was revised to be 99% accurate and less snarky. All snarky and historically inaccurate parts are followed by a ★ for clarity. While ☆ represents a gross simplification.
The history of the holiday which came to be known an O-bon/お盆–pronounced like Oh! Bone!–is very long and the stories as to how it came to be celebrated in Japan are as ethereal and mysterious as your average ghost.
The old lunar calendar that was used up until the Edo period actually had the holiday on July 15th but the modern calendar places it on August 15th. This means that now it also coincidentally comes on the same day that Japan surrendered to the United States and World War II ended.
O-bon was originally a Buddhist holiday that dates back as least as far as the year 606 in Japan, where it was written up in Nihon Shoki (日本書紀) one of Japan’s earliest historical records. At that time it was called 盂蘭盆会 (urabonkai). It was believed that on this day if you made offerings to the local Buddhist monks, that the spirits of your parents and other ancestors would be saved from spending time in the lower realms of existence and be sent on to a better incarnation.
In time, over centuries, with the free-market liberalization of the metaphysical world, the Buddhist monks got cut out of the distribution system and now the offerings are made directly to the spirits. ☆
The “bon” in O-bon (盆) itself refers to the vessels (plates, bowls, tupperware etc) in which offerings are placed upon for the spirits of the deceased. The physical bowl has come to refer to the holiday or the period where the holiday is celebrated in modern lingo. Of course, O-bon as a holiday could be translated as “honorable container day” but then it wouldn’t sound as cool as “Japanese Festival Of The Dead.” The practice of offering food and drinks (such as Pepsi-Watermelon Cola and Wasabi Potato Chips etc) to the visiting spirits is believed to have spread from the original ceremony in Japan’s hip 600s.
The O-Bon Sutra: If it’s in an ancient book it must be true.
There is even a Buddhist holy book about O-bon, called the 盂蘭盆経 (Urabonkyo) which establishes the basic ideas of the holiday. In this tale, a disciple of Buddha, named 目連 (Mokuren) finds out that his deceased mother is trapped in the realm of hungry ghosts (餓鬼) and tries to find a way to relieve her suffering. *Buddhism postulates six realms of existence. Hungry ghosts aka gaki (餓鬼) are spirits with huge stomachs and small throats that can never get enough to eat and are perpetually famished. Look for my book on the United States of America and its obesity problem, Hungry Ghost Nation, in 2015.★
Mokuren, the Buddhist monk, is bummed that his Mom is a sort of demon. He makes votive offerings of food and water to his Mom, but right before she can wolf them down, they all burst into flames, making that a no-go. He decides to save Mom.
Our hero, Mokuren, who we’ll call Mork, just to make it easier to remember, has a talk with the Buddha about this problem. The Buddha, who being all-wise and everything, says to him, “Well, Mork, your Mom was really a total thug and it’s not going to be easy to spring her from her realm of suffering. However, if you wait until the last day of our post-rainy season vacation, which is July 15th, and make offerings to all of your Buddhist monk pals and supporters—making sure everyone gets fed, maybe your Mom can eat some of the leftovers or get lucky?”
And so he does just that, the monks and lay-supporters have a huge party: drinking, dancing (the original o-bon odori), eating, and having lots of fun. The Buddha says to them, while the party goes on, “Guys, let’s take a moment and pray for the well-being of our beneficiary who put on such an awesome party, and for his ancestors as well—up to seven or so generations. Let’s calm our hearts and meditate and do a thanksgiving sort of thing.”
And lo and behold, the monks are wrapped in holy bliss and Mork’s Mom (Mokuren’s Mom), was freed from the realm of hungry ghosts. The Buddha then promises the same service to any monk or lay disciple who will take the Buddhist monks out for a party on July 15th.☆
The authenticity of this Sutra is widely debated but it doesn’t seem any less plausible than the Book of the Mormon.
50 Ways To Appease Your Loved Ones
O-bon is celebrated in different times, manners and places in Japan. The most common belief is that the spirits of the dead return around August 11th and leave again around August 15th or 16th, depending on the traffic in the spirit world. (O-bon traffic in our world peaks on the 14th and 15th, as most Japanese families in Tokyo go on vacation during this period as well and it collides with summer vacation for the kiddies.)☆
During this period families come together, greet the spirits of the departed, and then send them off again to the netherworlds. Some areas greet the spirits with a large bonfire (迎え火) and then send them off again with another fire (送り火). The energy crisis in Japan has dimmed plans to replace the bonfires with large LED lamps spelling out “Welcome” or “Good-bye” but in the future, who knows?
Depending upon the household and the area, some families will clean up the Buddhist altar and make their offerings there, placing faux horses made out of egg-plant or cucumbers to provide transportation for the wandering spirits. The smoke from the incense is believed to provide a highway for the ghosts and their cucumber horses to travel on.Tokyo dwelling families originally from Narita City in Chiba Prefecture families make a giant “limousine bus”* out of pumpkins and grapes to make the travel to Tokyo easier for the mass gatherings of ghosts arriving at the airport from the underworld. ★Actually that’s not really true. Apparitions can easily take the Narita Express now.☆
In many areas, O-bon odori(お盆踊り）, the O-bon dance is performed. The dance dates back to Heian era Japan and was believed to be a ceremony both to welcome the spirits of the dead, memorialize them, entertain them, and appease them. It’s not known if the modern-day hostess club has its origins in the O-bon odori.★ The movements of the dance are said by some to mimic the writhing of souls burning in hell—which makes sense if you’ve survived enough Japanese summers. But it’s hard to see how the writhing of tortured souls could be amusing. Mmmm….laughing at the suffering of tortured souls—amazingly O-bon pre-dates Japanese game shows.
Since the 1600s, many versions of the O-bon Odori incorporate Buddhist chanting which is believed to help the restless spirits go to a better place….Hawaii or heaven or a better incarnation. But not Saitama☆.
Deep O-Bon Thoughts (As Deep As A Plate)
Jokes aside, O-bon is one of the most interesting of Japanese festivals and while August 15th marks the current official date for the holiday, it still begins in July in many places in Japan. If you can use it as an excuse to get out of work, try celebrating it twice in the same year. You can claim to have relatives in Kansai. The actual dates and practices don’t mean that much but it’s an idea that I like in principle. There is something good about remembering those who have departed from our lives and will not return. It reminds us how lucky we are to still be alive, to eat, to drink and to dance. Even for those of us who can barely dance at all, there is something joyous about this holiday. Dance while you can.
“All of us who are still alive this O-bon, we’re simply the survivors of our fiscal year.”—Eiji Yoshikawa, Japanese novelist.
originally posted on August 15th, 2012 and updated yearly
Despite the popular opinion that Japan’s dedicated pro-whaling community comes from a background of legendary, barbaric whalers who slaughtered whales without mercy, some reports show that pre-harpoon whalers were actually very considerate for the feelings of these giant creatures. Sociologist Hiroyuki Watanabe’s book titled Japan’s Whaling, takes a broad look at the entirety of the country’s Whaling history. One section in particular covering the early modern period, Watanabe discusses how fishermen have, from then to the modern day, evolved into holding rituals repenting the slaughter of whales.
The section focuses primarily on a book from 1840 by whaler Hoshute Riyu, titled Ogawajima Keigei Gassen (The Battle with the Whales at Ogawajima), which, while depicting whales as the sworn enemies of the fishermen, also implements a Buddhist mindset to lament their deaths.
According to Hoshutei’s account, there existed “a consciousness among the people of the day that it was heartless to kill and make use of whales.” Hoshutei’s book, from the excerpt taken out, shows genuine anguish for killing the whales as being very equal to humans:
“How merciless it is to feel no pity for that resounding cry of pain as they face west to die, then row the carcass in to shore, cut it up in the barn and then immediately boil the meat or grill it before serving it and savoring the taste.”
The fact that Hoshutei describes the whales who “face west to die” is due to the Buddhist principle that the religion’s paradise is located to the west, showcasing a belief that all creatures are equally capable to reach the so-called “best” afterlife.
In some ways the excerpt resembles biblical writings that lament our inability to avoid sin, in an attempt to save ourselves from an unforeseen judgmental deity. The book was written with the intent to donate it to a shrine, Watanabe points out this could be possibly to avoid punishment for their killings. Hoshutei deals with the hypocritical nature of a whale fisherman lamenting his profession by adding that it’s a sad part the cycle of life and death that requires us to take advantage of nature’s resources (whale meat) before they leave us in their short existence.
He also describes the cries of the whales as they are slaughtered as heart-rending.
What followed Hoshutei’s very heartfelt consideration to the whales, we see a downward spiral that lead to the mindset we’ve come to see today that whales are just another fish to be caught and controlled by the Japanese as their own product.
With the implementation of Norwegian style harpoon hunting, whales began being killed much more rapidly. Along with the Meiji Restoration that led to the destruction of many Buddhist temples and its influence on the public, this boost in whale-killing technology led fishermen to conduct memorial services from time to time, such as donating a bell, as a way to honor the whales.
It’s unclear how common it was for someone like Hoshutei to make a beautifully hand-illustrated book detailing how beautiful whales are both before and during their killing. The “bleeding hearts and Western imperialists” who seek to protect the whales are often believed to overly humanize these warm-blooded cetaceans but it seems that the Japanese fishermen of old also felt compassion for the animals, and remorse for killing them. They at least honored the animals by making full use of all the parts.
It’s a far cry from today’s state supported whaling, for meat that no one wants to eat. There are now several tons of it in storage. That shows a lack of respect for the whales and for Japanese taxpayer money wasted on a “tradition” that only hardcore nationalists and people getting kickbacks want to preserve.