Flowers in Japan

Obon (festivals for the dead)

Obon, mid August

Obon, mid August

The graveyards on the hills in the Goto Islands, located near Nagasaki, begin to glow with the light of hundreds of paper lanterns as the season for the Festival of the Dead (bon) approaches. It is held on the fifteenth of the seventh month on the lunar calendar. The entire village gathers in the graveyards under the light of the lanterns, and children enjoy themselves setting off fireworks.

There are simple dances for the Festival of the Dead thorughout Japan in which everybody attending can participate, but on the Gotou Islands, the dance is extremely elaborate, and costumes consist of a large headdress of paper streamers and green branches, a white kimono, a grass skirt, and a drum hung at the waist which is beat vigorously with tassled sticks.

The young men who performs the dance sing loudly to the accompanishment of brass gongs and their own drums as they visit the homes of the recently bereaved to entertain the spirits of the deceased relatives. They dance in bright, vigorous, joyfull movement patterns.

In the quiet town of Tamanoura the dance is called kakedori, but it is generally refered to as chankoko-odori throughout the islands in imitation of the sound of the drums carried by the dancers.

The dancing begins in Tamanoura on the night of July 13. Eighteen young men participate dressed in the costumes described above. The heads of their drums are made from the cardiac muscles of the whale which gives them a unique high-pitched tone. After they have visited the homes of the recently bereaved, they dance up the hill to the graveyard, where they dance in front of the grave of the medieval lord of the castle of Tamanoura who died in battle, to entertain his spirit and consol him for his sad death.

Dancing in front of the graves of great warrios is a common practice during the Festival of the Dead throughout Japan.

The Festival of the Dead is a Buddhist observance. It is believed that the spirits of the dead return to their homes during this time. Therefore, they must be properly welcomed, entertained, and seen off when they ready to leave again for the other world.

The observances on the Goto Islands have been described here due to their colorful uniqueness. The same festival is held throughout Japan, but it is generally in the form of a mass dance on the public level and a family reunion on the private level. The general noisy of singin, dancing, and fireworks is an expression of joy, at the renion with loved ones who have passed away, experienced during this time.

Back to main festivals page.

Source : Hideo Haga, Japanese Festivals.

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