Toro Nagashi: Creating a sense of gratitude for ancestors

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SHOWING GRATITUDE — Participants of the 2023 Toro Nagashi event launch lanterns in a hand-made river at Sokoji Temple. courtesy Rev. Kurotaki

The tradition of floating lanterns on water is said to have started in China, yet in Japan, they have become part of a ritual to guide souls to return to the afterlife. While not all too common in America, the tradition of toro nagashi is found in a few Japanese American communities, most notably in Hawai‘i.

The Rev. Koshi Kurotaki of the Soto Mission of San Francisco Sokoji discussed the tradition in Japan and the temple’s own toro nagashi event held in San Francisco’s Japantown in this e-mail interview with the Nichi Bei News.

Nichi Bei News: What is the history and origin of the toro nagashi ceremony?
Rev. Koshi Kurotaki: It is said that the tradition of floating lanterns on water, known as “toro nagashi,” originated in China. In Japan, it became a part of the “okuribi” ceremonies performed at the end of the Obon festival. In places like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is said to have begun after World War II to mourn the victims of the atomic bombings.

NBN: What is its significance and purpose?
KK: During the Obon period in Japan, the souls of the deceased are said to return to this world, and memorial services are held for them during this time. At the end of Obon, the souls are sent off in a ceremony known as “okuribi.” One such ritual involves floating lanterns with lights, serving as a guide for the souls to return to the afterlife.

NBN: There are not many toro nagashi ceremonies in America. How common are they in Japan?
KK: Toro nagashi is not an event held in every region of Japan like Bon Odori, but it is a well-known event conducted in dozens of locations. Some regions hold it together with fireworks festivals at the end of summer.

NBN: Why do you think it’s important to hold this ceremony today?
KK: In Japan, honoring one’s ancestors through memorial services and other rituals is considered important. Through this event, where each lantern can be felt as if it embodies the soul of an ancestor, we can express our gratitude to our ancestors and reaffirm the preciousness of our own lives.

NBN: Why did Sokoji Soto Zen Mission decide to hold a toro nagashi ceremony?
KK: Sokoji Temple only held services for the Obon festival. However, this event, which started six years ago, was designed to allow people to actively participate in the Obon. It was planned with the idea that participants could feel a sense of gratitude towards their ancestors.

NBN: Can you tell us about this year’s event?
KK: The lanterns for Sokoji Temple’s toro nagashi are handmade by members. On a river created by volunteers, participants float lanterns adorned with hand-drawn pictures and inscribed with their ancestors’ names. Until nightfall, attendees can enjoy food and entertainment. Pre-ordering lanterns is required.

The sixth annual Japanese Obon Lantern Festival, or Toro Nagashi, will be held Saturday, July 20 at the Soto Mission of San Francisco Sokoji at 1691 Laguna St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. Doors open at 7 p.m., with an Obon ceremony at 9 p.m. and lantern launch at 9:30 p.m. There will be food, drinks and entertainment. Lanterns cost $30. For more details or to order lanterns and food by July 12, visit www.sokoji.org.

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