Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Welcoming a Reborn Spirit

Obon, or simply Bon (pronounced like "[oh-]bone"), is a Japanese Buddhist festival which has been celebrated in Japan since at least the 15th century. Thanks to mass confusion following the switch to the solar calendar, the date of the observance varies according to location. The Tokyo-Yokohama Metropolitan Area and parts of northern Honshu traditionally observe it around July 15th. Some scattered locations maintain the original lunar calendar date (15th day of the 7th lunar month), and thus the modern calendar date changes every year. However, in modern times the officially-accepted date of the Obon Festival is the three-day period from August 13th to 15th. It is a holiday season, and most people take the time off to return to their old family homestead to participate.

It is believed that, during the Obon period, the spirits of deceased ancestors return to the family homestead to visit their living descendents. Therefore, the traditional observance starts with family members visiting the family graves to pay homage to them and then, after returning home, lighting a ritual fire to guide the spirits home. Visiting members of the extended family will have a banquet at the old homestead, during which time the household butsudan (Buddhist altar) is shuttered to acknowledge the fact that the spirits are also there participating in the festivities. It is also common for communities to have traditional observances such as Bon dances.

Obon takes on a special significance if a household has a member who has been dead for one full year. Buddhist tradition in Japan apparently believes that a spirit becomes fully developed (for lack of a better term) one year after death occurs. Therefore, the first Obon after the one-year anniversary of the passing marks the first visit of the reborn spirit. It is called "Shinbon" (新盆 lit. "New Obon"), and it is a major event...almost like yet another funeral.

This year was the Shinbon for my mother-in-law, who died last year. Not surprisingly, it was a big event that took a lot of preparation. I usually look forward to Obon, but this year I dreaded having to put up even more than usual with my father-in-law going totally jittery, bossing us around constantly as if we were his personal servants, expecting us to drop our own lives whenever he had another passing whim, saying one thing and meaning another, going three-stage ballistic whenever something he wanted wasn't there in front of his face, constantly forgetting which way was up, and generally being a total arsewhole. He didn't fail to deliver. My wife and I tore into the horrendously extensive preparations with plenty of zest, and his house and yard are probably cleaner and in better condition now than they've been in decades, but we were seriously close to throttling him by the time the starting date finally arrived.

As with my mother-in-law's death and complex funeral observances, my father-in-law's house had to be rearranged. One room was designated as the room for paying homage to my mother-in-law. The funeral parlor we've been contracted with for the past year helped set up a beautiful altar:

Altar - daytime

This is the way it normally appeared during the day. The traditional Obon lanterns, of old-style design but with rotating, colored lights, were leased or bought by different individuals or groups. Normally my father-in-law only turned on a few of them at a time.

Altar - nighttime

This is the way it appeared in the evening with the overhead lamp turned off and all the lanterns lit. Although the scope of the camera is limited, the room was also hung all around with Buddhist images as well as calligraphy scrolls my mother-in-law had made in a seminar she'd attended during the last decade of her life.

The guests knelt on a cushion in front of the altar, placed incense sticks in the white burner pot in the foreground, prayed, and left a gift and/or money.

Family lantern

Guests coming in through the back door, as we hoped, were greeted by this hanging lantern emblazoned with my in-laws' surname.

My father-in-law told us that the observance would be on the 13th and 14th. The 13th was to be for general guests, and the 14th was to be mainly for relatives. For the most part that's exactly what it was. We spent all day on the 13th the way we had during the funeral period, i.e. constantly greeting guests at the door (by prostrating ourselves), leading them in, watching while seated in a seiza position (i.e. sitting on our ankles) as they placed incense and prayed at the altar, serving them food and drink at the table (which they rarely touched), and chatting with them at least until the arrival of the next guest gave them an excuse to leave! The 14th was mostly the same, but the overwhelming majority of the visitors were relatives, so they stayed longer, ate a bit more (i.e. they actually ate one or two bites), and had us bring out the beer and sake.

One old man, my wife's great uncle, had a few glasses of sake and then suddenly started declaring to me quite passionately that Japan was going to defeat the United States. Pressed for an explanation by his neighbors, he went on to say that his military unit was poised and ready to kick the asses of "ignorant, weak" American soldiers like me if we dared land on Japan's beaches. The others tried to get him to calm down, apologizing to me like crazy, but the old man (who is someone I've always liked) was on a roll. He seemed really excited and happy as he shook my hand and told me over and over again that I was a good person, but his military unit was going to smash us if and when we invaded. Not wanting to burst his bubble, I went along with it. Finally, the others present decided laughingly that they were all members of the same troop, poised and ready to fight, and I was their prisoner. On that note, I helped walk the very drunk, old man home and told the others they didn't need to apologize. A farmer in the rural outback, he'd probably never had a chance to say things like that to a real, live American before. He looked happy, so no harm done. Besides, I'm sure his unit really had been poised, proud and ready to kick ass all those years ago. We can be thankful it never came to that (though I will NOT welcome statements trying to justify the atomic bombings).

My FIL originally said that everything would end on the 14th, but true to form he suddenly declared that he had invited a number of people to come on the 15th. That meant abandoning our plans so we could be on standby. My wife was furious, but luckily the invited guests came in two groups at predetermined times. There was also one unexpected guest, but only one. That made things a lot easier. After that, we had a bit of a party to celebrate the end of it all. Then my FIL demanded that we remain on standby on the 16th too just in case. My wife and I were ready to tell him he was full of it but, wouldn't you know it, one guest did show up in the morning.

When my wife's grandfather, the one who lived in this house, died about twenty years ago, more than a hundred and fifty guests showed up for his Shinbon. Since over three hundred had attended my mother-in-law's funeral, we banked on at least that many coming for her Shinbon. As it turned out, the number of visitors was less than a hundred. That meant we had a lot of gifts left over...and a LOT of food. Sushi in particular had been ordered by my FIL in abundance on each of the 13th, 14th, and 15th, but hardly any of the guests touched it. That meant that we had sushi for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks on all three of those days plus the 16th before the last batch went rank and wound up in the garbage. I normally love sushi, but the mere sight of it was enough to twist my gut by the third day. Of course, we also wound up with plenty of leftover beer, and my FIL doesn't drink, so I shan't complain.

At least from now it's regular Obon every year until the next family member is lost. Let's hope that won't be for a long time.


  • In regards to invading Japan, I would not be surprised if the current administration were to do such a thing, considering their foreign policy track record, which includes befriending Chavez, Castro, and Aminniejihad. Just like Obama has turned his back on Israel, it makes perfect sense to invade our strongest ally in Asia.

    What I find unusual about Japanese traditions surrounding death is that they just can't seem to let go.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 4:12 AM  

  • The lanterns are lovely - I like pretty lights. But Dave has a point about not letting go. There is something very intense about the Japanese way of remembering the departed. Or should I say retaining?

    By Blogger Olivia, at 5:44 AM  

  • Very nice! I love all the very educational cultural information! Something similar is the Day of the Dead, celebrated around Halloween (so a Celtic-Mexican theme here?). I'm going to put up a traditional Ofrenda
    (see more info here - for our Halloween party this year, and decorate Sugar Skulls should be fun!

    By Blogger ladybug, at 6:17 AM  

  • Perhaps the formalization of so many events and rituals fills a time void which many people from other cultures would spend concentrating on pain and grief. There may be utility in it. After a couple of years, though, it would be more like bringing up something better left behind.

    Sorry I couldn't help with the sushi. I also apologize that I couldn't somehow work a dig against Obama into my comment.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 10:17 AM  

  • I'm amazed at the elaborate details in all of this. Surely not all families can afford the whole obon ceremony for their loved ones.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:22 PM  

  • Dave
    And so the comment thread begins with a shameless attempt at political threadjacking...and a laughably inane one at that. I declare that topic null, void, and closed on this thread, and any further attempts to bring it up will be deleted.

    Not only the Japanese, but many other Asian cultures often say that they live with their dead all the time. My wife and in-laws have always referred to my wife's long-deceased grandfather as if he were still among us, and such sentiments are normal here. On the other hand, the Japanese have trouble understanding why we're so quick to "throw away" our deceased.

    Obon is often compared with the Day of the Dead, the the symbolism isn't quite so morbid. Really, representational images of any kind seem to be avoided, and the spirits are regarded as being among the living.

    That's an interesting point, well worth noting.

    The sushi that my FIL ordered in excessive abundance was the rolled kind, none of which had fish in it. The simple ones, which had cucumber or natto, were pretty easy to snarf down. The bigger, fancier ones, which contain a colorful combination of eggs and pickles, are both really sweet and really filling. They're hard for me to eat in quantity.

    Oh, and BTW, why don't we keep our digging in our gardens for now, 'kay? This isn't a political discussion.

    It's expensive, to be sure, but the visitors all give money to help cover it. There are also different levels of ostentatiousness to choose from. My FIL chose an upper-middle course (surprisingly enough).

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 5:37 PM  

  • In whose post was it brought up that America was still attacking Japan? Isn't that absurd?

    Take no offense, but what I said is true.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 5:29 AM  

  • You can count me out on the natto, but the rest sounds good (as does the beer).

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 6:57 AM  

  • Dave
    Correction: In this post it was brought up that a drunk (and somewhat senile) old man was living in his past.

    I'm not offended, just annoyed.

    Oh, it was all good stuff. I've just never been able to eat those fancy, sweet sushi in quantity. Maybe it's the sweetness, but my appetite quickly shuts down. I can chow down on the simpler sushi, however!

    As for the beer, I finally gave in and tried Kirin's "Nodogoshi", which is one of those really cheap "beer-like beverages" rather than actual beer. I usually shun those because they are the old-style diet soda equivalent of beer, i.e. weak taste with an artificial "whang". I'm thinking of doing a post on the subject, but "Nodogoshi", which is Kirin's #1 seller right now, uses soy bean protein instead of malted barley. It's actually not bad, but I still like real beer better.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:56 PM  

  • You are blogging again, and now I'm behind. Well, I've been called a (pick an animal) "behind" before, so that's fitting I guess.

    What a beautiful post about Obon from a personal perspective within your family. The religious framework and the reality of dealing with the foibles of real, everyday folk. One of your best, I think. Thank you.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:39 PM  

  • Am I a bad person for chuckling about a drunk old man with a bit of dementia living, if for a shot while, in the past?

    By Blogger Arkonbey, at 11:43 PM  

  • Panda-B
    Well, I was away from your blog for a while, so fair is fair I suppose. ;-)

    Only if I'm also a bad person for chuckling about someone neither old nor senile who thought that man was talking about the present.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:44 AM  

  • Yeah, the Chinese Buddhist community too commemorates the first year anniversary of a deceased with prayers and offerings though it only involves immediate family members.

    That's a very nice alter.

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 5:36 PM  

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