FANTASTIC VOYAGE: What is Obon for a Buddhist reverend in Japan?

The word Obon in America, and the word in Japan, are two very different things. Many people in America link Obon to the street festivals and dancing that takes place in Japantowns and Buddhist temples. However, Obon in Japan is a big cultural holiday, much like Christmas without the commercialization. Many people take the day off (if they don’t get the day off already), and travel to their family home.

It would take quite a while to talk about the family system, the home, etc., because the system of a head family versus the branch family is still strong. But suffice to say, the “family home” can be a place where the family has lived for generations. It’s where the family grave is. And although people used to have a very strong connection to this “home,” a lot of the younger generation has moved out to the cities, and several generations living under one roof has become less prevalent.

Be that as it may, there are still many families that return “home” during Obon, and oftentimes it is the only time during the year that people come back. So Obon is a pretty big deal for many people.

OBON RITUAL — The Jokokuji Jodo-shu temple in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, where Bay Area native Jeff Asai serves as assistant minister, as set up for an Obon service. photo courtesy of Rev. Jeff Asai

As a Buddhist reverend, I have to go to everybody’s houses and give Buddhist prayers/chants in front of the obutsudan (shrine in homes). Every Buddhist sect is different, and there are also a lot of variations according to the region as well, so I can’t speak for everybody. In the Kansai area (Western Japan) Obon is observed in August, whereas in the Kanto (Eastern Japan) it is often observed in July. There are several explanations for this, including the use of the older lunar-based calendar to calculate the date as well as July being a busy season for farming, etc. But that is just one example of how different things can be.

But as I mentioned, I have to go to many houses during the Obon season, and on the peak days, I go to about 80 houses. (Basically, I just walk down the street going from house to house.) One of my friends who doesn’t have parishioners usually spends the Obon time working at the cemetery. Many people visit the family grave and so he gives a small ceremony at the cemetery where he works from morning to night. As an aside, he said that lately bad manners has become a problem and that sometimes people will be tugging on his sleeve and saying: “me next” while he’s still performing a ceremony for another family. I guess it’s the result of people having to travel long distances and then standing in the middle of a graveyard in the August sun that’s the problem.

But as busy as the Obon season is for me, I rather enjoy it because it gives me a chance to see people that I don’t usually get to see, including parishioners that live far away. And many places I go to, the houses are bustling with activity. A house that is usually just an older grandmother living by herself suddenly becomes a busy place with kids running around, and another house that is usually shuttered is cleaned from top to bottom with fresh flowers and incense to commemorate an old couple that used to live at the house but has long since passed away.

A big part of my job is officiating funerals and memorial services (people only rarely give Buddhist weddings) so it is rather refreshing to see everybody not only remembering their ancestors, but also strengthening their family ties with smiles and laughter. So, while I know Obon in America is usually very heavily tied to the wonderful festivals and dancing, I hope that people also visit their family graves and take a minute to remember those that have come before us.

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei originally from Northern California’s South Bay Area who grew up attending the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, where he serves as an assistant minister at a Jodo-shu temple, Jokokuji, teaches English and lives 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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