The Transformation of Obon in Brazil

Toro Nagashi – The entire population of Registro, Brazil participates in the Toro Nagasih, a practice of floating lanterns down the river to represent the souls of the dead. Photo courtesy of Bunkyo (Association) of Registro.

Obon is a Japanese custom attached to ancestor worship. It is commemorated in the summer, normally on July 15 on the lunar calendar, with services and ceremonies.

This custom was brought to Brazil by the first Japanese immigrants, but the initial form of the practice in the family homes has been slowly lost. Today for the most part, Obon is practiced in Buddhist temples. Overall, its traces still exist.

In the way of practicing the ceremonial aspect of ancestor worship, there is the Toro Nagashi, described more fully later in this article. As for the custom of visiting gravesites during the months of July and August, Japanese instead incorporated the local tradition of doing so on November 2, Day of the Dead, which is a Catholic practice dominant in the Brazilian community. And with this tradition, the Japanese call this day “Obon.”

In some ways, the influence of the more recently arrived Japanese immigrants has made the original practice of Obon stronger. Their influence can be seen in more traditional practices closer to the original — the veneration of ancestors and the dead — and has facilitated the acceptance of the celebration by Japanese in Brazil.

Customs tied to Obon, in any case, have settled in Brazil. Today, it is common to find festivals of Bon Odori in cities in the interior states of São Paulo, Paraná and Mato Grosso.

In truth, if the festival is a commemoration tied to Obon, it has lost its religious meaning and has become more of a lay festivity where everyone participates in a dance in the round. Today, those who participate in this festival are not only Japanese and their descendents but also non-descendent Brazilians.

The Obon festival has transformed into a city or perhaps a regional event, attracting an enormous public that in some ways sees the dance as a kind of square dance or samba of a different style, and this is understood to be a specialty of the city or locale relative to others. It is not rare that cities show off their pride in their special offering among other Brazilians. In some ways, there can be seen a syncretism of customs along with those influences of later arrivals who also leave their mark.

Registro, a city founded as one of the first Japanese colonies, for more than a half-century has observed the Toro Nagashi, a practice of floating lanterns down the river to represent the souls of the dead. Today the event involves the entire population of the city.  It is an event celebrated on November 7 — outside the time of traditional Obon, though soon after the Day of the Dead.

This has become a tradition that has multiplied in other locations, and since last year, has merged with ceremonies in memory of the victims of the atomic bomb; thus, the festival is promoted as the “Toro-Nagashi of Peace,” initiated in August, with the participation of public school students in the city as part of the official calendar. The Japanese tradition has become institutionalized, with the contribution of pacifist ties within a Brazilian context, though slightly departing from official national histories.

Lucio Kubo is a Brazilian Nisei writer, translator, and interpreter who lives and works in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This piece was translated from Portuguese to English by Karen Tei Yamashita.

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