Tottori Shan-Shan Festival
Photography by Thaddeus Pope
Obon, or simply Bon, is a Japanese custom of paying honour to the spirits of one’s ancestors and loved ones who have passed away. Now considered to be the second most significant holiday after New Year’s, this Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into an important family reunion holiday. During Obon, celebrants return to ancestral sites to tend to their graves in anticipation of a visit from the spirits of their ancestors, who are believed to pay visits to household altars 1, and participate in lively regional festivals with their own unique style of dance.
Obon is one of only a small number of events in Japan that are recognised by the government as national holidays. In a country where paid holidays are still considered a rare luxury, Obon is a precious and highly anticipated occasion, so much so that most companies go on holiday during this time, leaving the hard-working Japanese free to shed their inhibitions and enjoy themselves with their friends and family.
The Bon Dance
Celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years, the custom traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-odori, or ‘bon dance’, which is typically celebrated around the 15 August. Bon-odori was originally a Nenbutsu 2 folk dance performed to welcome the spirits of the dead. The modern manner of celebration varies in many aspects from region to region, each of which has its own local dance and style of music. The music may consist of songs pertinent to the spiritual message of Obon or to local min’yō 3 folk songs, and some dances involve different kinds of props, such as fans. In the beloved Tottori Shan-Shan festival, umbrellas are used.
- The household altars are known as butsudan, a common feature in many Japanese homes. ↩
- Nembutsu is the Japanese term, which means to think intently about or contemplate the Buddha by repeating the Buddha’s name. ↩
- Min’yō is a genre of traditional Japanese music; i.e., a folk song. Each area of Japan boasts its own unique version and style of their min’yō. ↩
- Enka is a popular Japanese music genre that resembles traditional Japanese music stylistically. Modern enka, however, is a relatively recent musical form that adopts a more traditional musical style in its vocalism than ryūkōka music, which was popular during the prewar years. ↩
- An ondo usually refers to a kind of song with a distinct, swung 2/2 rhythm. This ‘swing’ can be referred to as ukare in Japanese. Ondo is a term used in older Japanese genres but is still used today when referring to songs written in this swinging style. ↩