O-bon: Festival of The Dead or “Please Feed The Hungry Ghosts Day”

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.

It’s a long road home from the underworld to Tokyo.

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.

“Mom, you look great as a hungry ghost–not fat at all! But I’ll talk to the boss, we’ll figure this out.”

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.”

            ”仏陀は、十方の比丘に対し、このように言った。「比丘達よ、七月十五日に供養を受ける時、
施主の家の為に祈り、七世の祖先の為に祈り、
坐禅をして心を静めて、然る後に、頂きなさい。」「比丘達よ、初めて御飯の供養を受ける時、
施主の家の為に祈り、七世の祖先の為に祈り、
霊前で祈願をしてから、然る後に、頂きなさい。」それを聞いた、比丘達は、法悦に包まれて、
モッガラーナの涙も、完全に止ったのである。
そして、母親も、一劫続く餓鬼道から救われた”

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.

Poorly choreographed O-bon Odori

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.

“I love having the ancestral spirits visit but I wish they’d clean up after themselves. It’s about time to light that incense and send them off.”

「このお盆に生きている全部の人間は、単に今年度の生き残り分にすぎない」吉川英治 (小説家)

“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

 

The 70 Year Fallout: A Lament for Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Editor’s note: This year it will be 70 years since the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. What is not widely known is that Japan was working on building its own atomic bomb, and if they had been faster, many believe that Imperial Japan would have used it. It does not lesson the horror of what was done but it should be noted. War is a horrible thing and it seems like it would be a tragedy to ever see Japan take up the mantle of war again. And the spectre of nuclear energy unleashed by the bomb is something that haunts this country as well, something that maybe should be abandoned as well. For a perspective on what the bomb meant to Japan and the Japanese people, Kaori Shoji, writes on it eloquently. 

 

A baby born in in the year the Japanese surrendered in WWII – the same year two atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaaki respectively – has turned 70 years old. During these 7 decades, the two cities had known starvation, struggle and the kind of recovery the majority of the Japanese thought was impossible.

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On August 6th, 1945, above Hiroshima City, American bomber pilots first scattered flyers from their planes that warned all civilians to evacuate the area. The civilians – consisting mainly of hungry women, children and the elderly, picked up the flyers but couldn’t make out the words. For the past 6 years the Japanese military had banned all use of English words like “radio” and “milk” (not that the majority of the public had access to such luxuries) and drummed it into the Japanese public that the Americans and British were ogres or beasts.

A short while later, a huge mushroom cloud burst in the sky and in what seemed like a matter of seconds, the entire city went up in flames. Charred bodies were everywhere, but those who died instantly were better off than those that survived – suffering from horrendous burns and a raging thirst, they died in unspeakable agony within hours or days or weeks, depending on their exposure to flames and radiation.

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It took some time for the news to travel up and down the archipelago. In Tokyo, people heard that a terrible mega-bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, but they were too busy running for their lives like cockroaches, under firebombs that exploded in the sky and razed entire districts in a matter of hours. My grandmother, who was in middle school at the time, said that 24 hours after the a-bomb dropped on Hiroshima, people were already whispering about it on the streets but “we were too desperate to pay much attention.” Three days later on August 9th, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On August 15th, the Emperor of Japan went on the radio and announced to his people that after years of everyone having to “endure the un-endurable,” the war had finally ended.

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The baby is now 70, and s/he has turned into a grandparent. This baby has only a sketchy memory of the terrible years after the war. By the time this baby grew into a teenager and graduated from high school, s/he had enough to eat and clothes on their back. They could look forward to a solid if not a personally happy future, with job security and a house in the suburbs. Their lives were made infinitely easier than their parents,’ with appliances, gadgets and the all-important, sheerly reliable Japanese car. At the back of their minds however, lies a hard nugget of anxiety and a deep sense of sadness. Take for example, the case of Shizuko Ohnishi, whose father died in Hiroshima’s nuclear bomb attack 2 months before she was born. Her pregnant mother had been staying with relatives in the mountains, 20 kilometers from the city and subsequently been spared. “Or else I never would have been born,” said Ms. Ohnishi quietly. She still visits the city’s hospital – called the “Genbaku Byouin (Nuclear Bomb Hospital) that treats victims from 70 years ago. “I wasn’t born yet, but my mother was exposed to radiation and she died in her 50s from thyroid cancer. It follows that I would go the same way though I didn’t expect to outlive her this long. I consider the last 20 years as a bonus I don’t really deserve.”

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Ms. Ohnishi’s words are in a way, typical of those who have been through “that day.” The Japanese feel they are to blame – for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for the over 800,000 civilian deaths, the misery and poverty during the postwar years. They wanted to sweep all the reminders of a past blackened by death and destruction, right under some heavy futons which is why not a whole lot of Japanese born between the 1930s, right up until the 1970s, are willing to discuss or dwell on that period – especially not with foreigners, not to mention Americans. During these 7 decades US-Japan relations have been a defining factor behind Japanese policy, economy and export industry. It has brought us among other things, the Peace Constitution and Tokyo Disneyland. So hey – better to pretend all that stuff just never happened, right? This logic is in the same ballpark with the logic that over the years, has banned manga and literature depicting the bomb attacks. The latest to come under restriction is the classic manga “Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen)” series by Keiji Nakazawa. Several school boards in Japan have taken it out of circulation, ostensibly because it contains “discriminatory language” including “kichigai (moron, or crazy person).” WTF, big time. Still, this sort of thing keeps happening, precisely because the victims say things like they don’t deserve to live until 70.

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In the meantime, Hiroshima has moved on from becoming a blackened, barren land to a glittering urban epicenter, flush with money and guarded by Japan’s most efficient regional police force. The city’s symbol remains the Atomic Dome – the former “Industry Endorsement Center” built in the early 20th century. It was one of Hiroshima’s first western style buildings made of concrete, and equipped with a domed ceiling which most Japanese had never seen. In the aftermath of the a-bombing, 90% of the main facade was ripped apart by flames but the dome structure remained.

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To the rest of the world, the dome became a symbol of mankind’s first deployment of the nuclear bomb. To the survivors in Hiroshima, it represented a mega-scar that wouldn’t go away. Months after the bombing, the more audacious types gathered at the dome, bared their torsoes to show their burn marks and posed next to grinning American Occupation soldiers who loved to take photos and send them back to their families. This brought them a few dollars and in those days, a few dollars was wealth. Others picked up bent, burned and twisted pieces of steel or rubble, human bones and the like, and sold them to the soldiers as souvenirs. But these people disappeared in the early 1950s as Hiroshima concentrated its efforts on looking forward and marching the march of the rapid growth economy. It was during this time too, that Hiroshima’s mayoral office debated on whether to keep the dome going or to tear it down. It brought back memories too terrible to contemplate, but on the other hand, Germany had turned Auschwitz into a museum. Shouldn’t they like, do the same?

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In the midst of all this, the survivors in Nagasaki took second place. They were like the back-up chorus, always several feet from center stage. Hiroshima now has a world-wide repute but Nagasaki less so, and you can see it in the vastly differing ways the two cities have dealt with the past. Nagasaki has remained faithful to its illustrious roots as Japan’s one and only port open to the outside world (actually just mainland China, Korea and the Netherlands) during the Tokugawa Shogunate, and a safe haven for Japan’s “Secret Christians” who went into hiding for 3 centuries after Christianity was banned in the late 1500s. Until Japan officially opened her doors to the West in 1865, these people built clandestine altars and carved statues of the Virgin Mary, always in fear of being discovered, tortured and impaled on the end of a spear until dead, as mandated by law. When the bomb was dropped, it first struck the Nagasaki City Prison before spreading out over the entire city, and destroyed Nagasaki’s iconic Urakami Cathedral, among everything else. In the Cathedral neighborhood, there were an estimated 14,000 Catholic inhabitants. Over 8000 died from the bomb and Nagasaki considers the victims to be martyrs.

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Today, Nagasaki remains somewhat provincial and markedly more laid-back than Hiroshima. Urakami Cathedral has been rebuilt and the city has maintained close ties with the Vatican. Apart from commemorating the a-bomb’s 70th year anniversary, Nagasaki is celebrating 150 years since the official revival of Christianity. There’s not much here in the way of industry, despite the fact that Nagasaki was the site of Japan’s very first trading company (Kameyama Shachu). The police and yakuza forces – so rampant in Hiroshima, just doesn’t have the same sway here. Everything about it feels retro and exotic, like the slabs of whale meat on display in the local markets as if no one here has heard of Greenpeace. The local celebrity is actor Masaharu Fukuyama and local legendary figures include Thomas Glover, reputed to be a masonic spy for the British government when he came over here in 1859.

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Nagasaki’s Peace Park feels very different from Hiroshima’s – more formal and less a part of the daily fabric, though ice cream vendors call out to American military folks out for a jaunt in Nagasaki from the naval base in nearby Sasebo. “Gee, that’s sad,” said a blonde woman to her husband, as they looked over the bomb replica at the museum, and reading the story of a little boy who showed up at a crematorium with a dead baby strapped to his back. Over the years, surveys have consistently shown that over 50% of Americans think the bomb attacks were “necessary” and “not wrong.” No American in government has ever issued an apology.

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The Dome in Hiroshima is undergoing major repairs, in time for the Olympics and an expected tidal wave of foreign visitors. It resides in the Peace Park, which is a pretty piece of urban greenery where gaijin tourist couples laugh and frolic and take selfies, right in front of the Dome. Local children scream and play while their mothers stand gossiping. Seventy years has gone by and the area surrounding the Dome has shifted from war atrocity memorial to a somewhat banal city park where a white construction sheet covers a small dome structure. It’s hard to say whether this is a good thing. It probably is, though that very thought clogs my throat like the ghost of a sobbing voice.

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by Kaori Shoji

Harro Halloween Party 2014: Where to go in Tok-ee-oh (Tokyo)

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Halloween is one of the biggest party events in Japan and some have estimated that Japanese people spend more on the festivities than those in America. And why not? This is the costume play capital of the world. (In the best love hotels, every day is Halloween).

Halloween in Japan used to be a non-holiday celebrated by only a few rowdy foreigners. The biggest party was on the Yamanote line where groups of masked barbarians would take over a a train car and party on. The stuff of legends.

Maybe the  best article tracing the growth of Halloween in this island country is here, from Japan Today

Since when was Halloween so popular in Japan?

1. Theme parks introduce “Happy Halloween”

Up until about the year 2000, Halloween was something people would only hear of by learning English or watching TV programs from other countries. But when Tokyo Disneyland got in on the act (let’s face it – there’s money to be had from a simple spooky makeover), people began to sit up and take notice. On Oct 31, 1997, visitors to Disneyland wore costumes to be part of “Disney Happy Halloween”. Then in 2000, 400 visitors and Disney characters in costume held a ”Happy Halloween Twilight Parade” in the park.

Already enamored of Disneyland, the people of Japan were enchanted by this new idea of Halloween. The event was a hit in 1997, and the scale of the party increased along with public awareness, until Halloween became established as an annual autumn event. Currently the lavish celebration kicks off sometime in early September.

Universal Studios Japan opened its doors in 2001, and got in on the act from 2002 with “Hollywood Halloween”. The two major theme parks of Japan gradually brought Halloween more and more into the public consciousness……..(more here) 

Tomorrow and Friday will be Halloween Paradise in Tokyo but where to go, what to do? For you, our gentle reader, we’ve capriciously picked several places with total bias in our choices, including parties run by old friends, former employers, and people we sort of know–not even a veneer of objectivity. But we’re going with what we know. 

this one is over but it was a blast!

For gaijin, journalists, old-timers, new-comers, and everybody (Thursday night) FINISHED

The highly anticipated Metropolis Halloween Glitterball‘ – supported by Fashion One and Fox Backstage Pass – is here once again!

Come to ELE Tokyo and enjoy sensational performances by Dafty, Femm, and Tokyo Dream Girls. Dress up in your most terrific and terrifying costume for a chance to win fantastic prizes from sponsors like Lindt, Laurent-Perrier, Bacardi, Adidas, ANA InterContinental, and many more! ‘

Futuropolis. Metropolis. Halloween. Glitterball. Bling. Prizes.
Futuropolis. Metropolis. Halloween. Glitterball.
Bling. Prizes.
 

It looks great. The website for buying tickets in advance is buggy. Argghhh. But try your luck.

 

BIAS NOTICE: Many of the staff members, past and present at Japan Subculture Research Center have written for Metropolis at one point in our career, including acting editor-in-chief, Jake Adelstein (under the transparent name ‘Joshua Noblestone’). The Metropolis may not be what it once was but it remains one of the only printed guides to events in Tokyo in English and sometimes has some great articles. So we are definitely going to this party.

And as an added bonus, it’s being emceed by one of the hottest women in Tokyo. (Subjectively speaking)

 

We even have a testimonial and click bait picture for this blog.

 

“I’m Gigi, your MC, and I look forward to welcoming you to a night you will never forget. See you tomorrow!”

 

We’re totally biased.

The femme fatale MC GG, pronounced like jiji (爺)will be hosting this event, wearing something.
The femme fatale MC GG, pronounced like jiji (爺)will be hosting the Halloween Glitterball.

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Metropolis Halloween Glitter Ball 2014 it was a blast. next year!
Metropolis Halloween Glitter Ball 2014
it was a blast. next year!

DSC07465 DSC07433 Halloween Metropolis 2014!

For the fashionistas, models and hipsters: Feria 

Four floors of halloween action: dance, lounge, linger, drink.

FERIA 六本木 ハロウィン 2014 【セレブラウンジ 10月31日 ハロウィンパーティー!】超豪華!FERIA TOKYOでラグジュアリーなハロウィンをお楽しみ下さい!

If you don't where this is, you're not cool enough to go. (lol)
If you don’t where this is, you’re not cool enough to go. (lol)
event_fe_29075 again
FERIA

 

Costume Play (コスプレ) That Pays! 

In the abandoned remains of legendary A Life, Brand Tokyo reopened in July of this year, and is hosting several nights of Halloween Brand Carnivals, and giving away 1,000,000 yen in prizes for costumes. It’s a mostly Japanese crowed and tickets are being sold in advance—and close to being sold out. If you’re going to play, you might as well get paid.  And according to the proprietors–it’s open until the last train. All night long.

BRAND TOKYO: Halloween Costume Play That Might Pay
BRAND TOKYO: Halloween Costume Play That Might Pay

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For the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual party goer 

2-chome Halloween Night! 

Have a gay and happy halloween in Shinjuku 2-chome. Come for the zombie walk and stay out all night until you feel like a zombie.
Have a gay and happy halloween in Shinjuku 2-chome. Come for the zombie walk and stay out all night until you feel like a zombie.

Shinjuku 2-chome is the center of Tokyo’s LGBT world. This Friday not only has a zombie walk but for those with a costume, it’s only 1,000 yen at the Aisotope Lounge if you go in costume. If it’s a FABULOUS costume–free.

2,500 for the unprepared. Tokyo Time Out sums it all up rather nicely:

This all-nighter goes beyond the conventions of sexuality, gender and taboos, featuring everything from corset fitting and a flea market to a colourful zombie walk around the area, while the beats will be provided by the indomitable Tomo Asahina and friends.

Who could resist? This is where the JSRC staff will probably spend their Friday night dressed up as ninja. You won’t be able to find any of us—that’s how good our costumes are.

For The Art Lover: Halloween Art Hop and Stamp Rally in Yokohoma

Spooky art is just a stamp away
Spooky art is just a stamp away

Put on your costumes and take a walk through Ishikawacho and Chinatown to check out the Yokohama i:23 exhibits. Collect all 4 stamps from:
仮装して石川町や中華街のi:23参加ギャラリーを巡ってみませんか?下記のギャラリーでスタンプラリーをやっています。

Launch Pad Gallery

Gallery and cafe fu

Zaim Cafe Annex

Art Baboo146

and receive a special spooky Halloween print!
全部集めてハロウィン特製アートを手に入れよう!

For everything else, check out the following links

Tokyo Time Out: Halloween in Tokyo 2014 

Metropolis Japan: Halloween Special