FANTASTIC VOYAGE: Obon in Japan, compared to America

I’d been trying to think of how to compare Obon festivals in Japan and America, but for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, it was very difficult. On the surface there are many similarities; however, the role of the temple in America is very different than that of Japan, so to properly understand the Obon festival, we have to first look at the similarities and differences in American and Japanese temples.

In America, the temple is not only a place where Buddhism is practiced, it also serves as a hub of the Japanese American community. As such, the temple takes on roles representing Japanese culture that temples in Japan don’t really have to deal with.

Japanese Obon
In Japan, Obon is not recognized as an official holiday, but many people get the day off. Traditionally, most people go to their grandparents’ house and spend time with the family. In other words, it’s almost like Christmas in America. The Obon holiday (Aug. 14-16 in most areas, but July 14-16 in some areas in Tokyo and other places in the Kanto region) is one of the busiest times in terms of travel within Japan, and hours-long traffic jams are always shown on the news.

The reason families gather together is that it is a time to honor their ancestors. Many families call a Buddhist minister to their house to perform a small ceremony in front of their Obutsudan or at the family grave (or both). And there are many other traditions that differ from region to region in Japan. At some places, there is emphasis on the lighting of candles to light the way for the ancestors to come back to the house, and at other places the food you might lay out for your ancestors might be different. But the main emphasis is family.

The festival part of Obon has nothing to do with the temple. The Obon festival in my city of Asuka, Nara Prefecture is sponsored by donations from the residents. It is not held at or organized by the temple. There are food booths and games, and a small fireworks show at the end. Many places simply call it “natsu matsuri” or summer festival.

In Asuka, funding has become a problem and as there was a lack of dancers, the Bon Odori was scrapped from the schedule. This seems to be a growing trend. There are still some large Bon Odori events, but in general, Bon Odori is on the decline.

If you were to ask me about Obon in Japan, the first thing to come to mind is family and visiting the grave.

American Obon
Obon in America is obviously not a holiday, and I don’t know anyone who has relatives fly in from across the country to come home. As a result, there is less emphasis on family and visiting the grave of your ancestors.

Combine that with the fact that the average city in America does not just throw Obon festivals, and you can see how temples, as hubs of Japanese American activity, became central in their development. This also marks a shift in emphasis from family to community, with the main part of Obon in America becoming the festival. In fact, many people in America probably think Obon is synonymous with festival, whereas that is not necessarily the case in Japan.

The thing that I like about Obon festivals in America is the sense of community. The festivals in Japan are almost like giant class reunions, because people who moved outside of the area usually come back to celebrate Obon. But if you aren’t from the area, there is not much to do except watch the fireworks and eat. In that sense, I think the American Obon festivals are much more inclusive, bringing in members of the community to celebrate Japanese traditions and cuisine.

But in the midst of celebrating, let’s also not forget the reason we have Obon — paying respects to the people who have come before us.

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei originally from Northern California’s South Bay Area, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan, where he is serves as an assistant minister, teaches English and resides with his wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka and Yui. He can be reached via e-mail at jeffasai@gmail.com.

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