The Obon Festival Is Based On a Buddhist Myth
Bon, the short form of Obon is a Japanese holiday rooted in the Buddhist religion honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors. It takes place in the summer and usually involves people visiting the graves of their dead relatives back in their hometowns. The festivity lasts three days but its starting date varies depending on the region in Japan. Some localities base this tradition on the lunar calendar thus celebrate it around August 15 while those who follow the Gregorian calendar begin the fiesta around July 15.
Legend has it one of the disciples of Buddha, Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), once used his supernatural powers to check on his dead mother in the world of the spirits. He learned his mother was suffering gravely in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and sought the Buddha’s counsel on how to free her from this realm. The Buddha instructed him to offer food gifts to the Sangha, the monks coming from their summer retreat on the 15th day of the seventh month. Herein lies the origin of the tradition to celebrate the festival starting on the 15th day of either July or August.
After the disciple followed Buddha’s instructions and the subsequent mother’s release, he celebrated by a very joyous dance. This resulted in the tradition of Bon Odori, when people dance, celebrate, appreciate, and remember the sacrifices of their ancestors.
In addition to the festivities, Obon also takes a somber mood. All over Japan, and across the world, Japanese Buddhists clean the graves of the deceased relatives. Flowers are also laid on these graves and prayers are offered to the ancestors. On the last night of Obon, candles, bonfires, and lanterns are lit to escort the spirits as they depart.
Obon is not a public holiday in Japan, but most businesses/companies close shop and give their employees time off.