Japanese American Traditions

Obon: A Time of Reflection and Celebration

For Japanese Americans, an annual summer tradition is the Obon or “Festival of the Dead.” An integral holiday in the Buddhist calendar, Obon is an important bridge which connects Japanese heritage to the Japanese American culture. It is a religious day, but also a social occasion falling in mid-July or August. During this period, it is believed that the souls of dead ancestors return home to visit their relatives. To honor the dead, families often visit the burial places of their family, pray for the souls of their ancestors, and make offerings of food.

Despite its connection to Buddhist religion, the spirit of Obon is celebrated and embraced by all, regardless of their religious background. Communities create a colorful festival atmosphere with a brightly decorated stage, hanging red lanterns, and a taiko drum featured center-stage. Each temple’s festival is unique, but all generally feature carnival games with food booths serving traditional Japanese and Japanese American fare—sushi, udon, dango, teriyaki—as well as American favorites such as snow cones and corn-on-the-cob.

Although certain parts of the festival have changed over the years, Bon-Odori, a religious folk dance, has remained an integral part of the festivities. These rhythmic, repetitive dances were originally performed to give comfort to the spirit of the dead during this season, and each movement in the dances has a special significance. Men, women, and children dressed in yukata (a cotton summer kimono) dance around a raised stage. Some of the dances differ according to locality, and today modern and foreign songs have been introduced into these programs.

In recent years, generations of Japanese Americans have joined Obon celebrations, enhancing the spirited atmosphere of Bon Odori. Once the festivities are over and a sense of community and cultural sharing has been reinforced, everyone—including ancestral spirits—returns to their world for yet another year.

June 2002

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