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Japan Subculture Research Center

A guide to the Japanese underworld, Japanese pop-culture, yakuza and everything dark under the sun.

(Originally published in 2017)  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 and it continues to the end of the month for some regions.

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.”


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

24 thoughts on “O-bon: Festival of The Dead or “Please Feed The Hungry Ghosts””
  1. Isn’t it the reverse? Wasn’t Obon originally mid-August (as was based on the lunar calendar), then when Japan shifted to the Gregorian calendar in the Meiji era, the Kansai and Kanto Buddhist sects came to a crossroads, with many Kanto sects shifting Obon a month earlier to follow the new calendar (since New Years shifted from Chinese New Years to Jan 1st), while the Kansai sects stayed with the lunar calendar. That’s what a Nichiren monk explained to me a few years ago.

    Otherwise, a very entertaining article.

    1. According the Buddhist scholar I spoke with–July 15th was the original date. Or in other words, the 盂蘭盆経, in its Japanese translation says the 15th of the 7th month of the year. So I guess it depends on when you consider it to be the 7th month of the year.

      The explanation you received might be correct. I’m certainly not an expert.

      1. I believe Tatsuji is correct. The 15th of the seven month of the year refers to the lunar calendar not the solar calendar we use today and in the lunar calendar it is closer to August 15th. The other reason why I think Tatsuji is correct is more anecdotal. At the time of the calendar change, the seat of power was in the Kanto region thus the change from August to July in the Kanto region. Where my father is from which is the Inaka, they tend to be more backward and less progressive in their thinking.especially during the Meiji period which is why they still celebrate it in August. Here in the states it is celebrated in August because alot of people moved from Japan at the end of the Edo period to try to find work as well as the fact that most of them were from the countryside..
        One aspect you missed (it may just be regional) is that you want to be visited by your ancestors so that they will recognize you when you die and you can be reunited with them in the after life..

        1. Your explanation makes sense to me.

          “One aspect you missed (it may just be regional) is that you want to be visited by your ancestors so that they will recognize you when you die and you can be reunited with them in the after life.”

          Thank you for sharing that. I’ve never heard that before but I’m not sure I want to be reunited with my ancestors after death. I’m very hard to get along with.

  2. Does O-Bon just apply to ancestors/elders? Or anyone who has departed? I love the idea of a day to remember the deceased, don’t know why we never do the same, it allows us to share our common loss. Would have been my son’s 9th birthday today so reading this is kind of calming and peaceful, cheers Jake.

    1. It applies to anyone who has departed. There is a little debate as to whether it applies to someone who passed away before O-bon. Many Japanese believe that the soul takes 49 days to reincarnate.
      My BFF passed away on July 9th. Some of her friends and I had a small party on August 11th, the start of O-bon for some, to remember her. It was very nice.
      I’m sorry to hear about your son. How old was he when he passed away?
      I think there is something calming and peaceful about this day. That it has come to be on the same day that World War II ended, seems very appropriate.
      Best wishes

      1. He was just shy of 3 months, fought a terribly hard fight with incredible strength. Which gives me strength. Thanks for your kind thoughts. I read about your friend with great sadness the other day.

      2. As a native Japanese, I was told that after we die, we’d stay in this world for 49 days before taking off to the spirit world. It used to be that every 7th day, a ceremony takes place to appease the soul until it takes off. In these busy days, the funeral and the 7th day ceremony take place back to back on the same day, and later on the 49th day, another special ceremony takes place to send the deceased soul to the spirit world.
        I have sent my parents’ souls in this manner.

        1. In most schools of Buddhism, that’s correct.However, O-bon is a folk belief that differs from standard Buddhist metaphysics. It is a tradition, that his rooted in a non-canonical sutra.

  3. it’s an interesting practice… Dunno many younger people worry over those that have died in their afterlife now… I guess I figure they are all out having a party, pretty much, without concern for the living. In my experience it’s only been those much older that visit graves and such, though I dunno why. Many religions seem to indicate that the person isn’t there in the grave, only a shell.

    But, if it’s used as a reason to get the family together, that can be a good thing. I sometimes feel in the US, many of us lead splintered lives, because we dun’ see the family much. In my family, it’s always been the matriarch that sets that get together, and since my own Nana died, nobody has really stepped up, because we all live in far away places. Many of my friends report similar.

    We talk on the internet a lot, but it’s not the same. That seems to relate a lot to how ancestors are history and how history informs who you are today, regardless if it’s an additive way or a subtractive one.

    /musing off.

  4. […] Japan Subculture Research Center: O-bon: Festival of The Dead or “Please Feed The Hungry Ghosts Day” – “Today August 16h marks the official end 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.” – Fun explanation of this recently-passed Buddhist holiday. Ends with a great quote: “All of us who are still alive this O-bon, we’re simply the survivors of our fiscal year.”—Eiji Yoshikawa, Japanese novelist. This entry was posted in Stuff From The Internet and tagged biology, buddhism, data storage, death, DNA, futurism, hungry ghosts, reading, religion, technology, thinking by Ian Campbell. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  5. Mexicans dance in the street, picnic in the cemetery. Dias de Los Muertos. In the US, hungry ghosts (and hobos and Cinderellas) beg/blackmail for candy. And parents check for razor blades in the carmelized apples. Jake, 2015 isn’t soon enough.

    Aztecs (2500 B.C) celebrated for an entire month, August, which was their ninth month. Good grief, why do they have to keep changing everything? And why a month then, and now just a couple of days? HR got involved, no doubt.

  6. too bad japan can’t get rid of their dogmas and unscientific belief. For a group of people living so far in the future, they are sure stupid

  7. I know I’m doomed to end up as a hungry fat ghost with a thin throat. Who could possibly love a hateful bitch like me?

  8. Fact-check …

    August 15th – the Japanese surrendered to the forces of the Allied Powers, not the United States.

  9. This kind of festival seems to be a feature of a great many cultures and goes back a long way. The Ancient Greeks did it, only being in the Mediterranean climate. where the ‘middle of winter’ is the green and growing season, they did it around the end of January. The Irish have a supper for the dead, and everybody knows about Halloween (well, many people do, and its not about candy). Bottom line: remembering those who have passed, telling stories about them, seems to be a cultural imperative, might even be pre-Human. If you can do it in a positive and festive atmosphere, so much the better. I’ve been dancing at Bon Odori for about the past ten years, and there are people I only see at that event, new friends in the dance, and it makes me feel good. Eating and drinking sake is also a plus.

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