In Fukushima they dance the solemn and haunting Jangara, in Tokushima the orgiastic Awa Odori and in Gifu the Tetsuya Odori that lasts all night, in Kyoto they light the Gozan no Okuribi (五山送り火), fires forming gigantic ideograms in the slopes of the mountains surrounding the city, in every neighborhood of every town the citizens’ associations organize a Bon Odori and in many homes they still make “souryou-uma” (精霊馬), cucumber-horses and eggplant-cows with chopsticks for legs and place them outside their front gate or door, together with incense sticks. And on the last day, usually on August 15, the people who live close to a river or the sea make tourou (灯籠) paper lanterns, light them up and throw them in the water; no matter how much the times have changed, the O-Bon (お盆), the day of the dead remains an important matter in Japan.
Although the Buddha didn’t speak about a “soul”, at least in the sense found in Christianity, the unique blend of beliefs and convictions we concisely call “Japanese religion” (and which, in turn, is the Japanese expression of the corresponding Chinese amalgam –I’m not exaggerating when I say that there are few aspects of Japanese culture that don’t have a Chinese equivalent) not only doesn’t refute the existence of the spirits of the dead but considers them present, at least in the period around mid-August. And the followers of this religion do anything they can to ease the spirits’ coming to this world, please them during their brief stay and in the end, see them off to the next as content as possible. Because these spirits are not strangers: they are the loved ones who left, the ancestors almost all cultures honor in one way or another.
As also happens with the Mexican Dia de Muertos, the O-Bon counterweights the sorrow for those who departed with the joy of celebration; contrary to the former though, both its solemn and its festive parts are lacking the macabre. The closest people get to the actual fact of death is a visit to the family graves (the “haka-mairi” I have mentioned earlier) or a special prayer in the home altar-butsudan (ditto) but beyond that, the spirits are neither visualized nor personified. And I believe this has less to do with the alleged penchant of the Japanese for the evocative (which I personally don’t subscribe to: I have almost reached the conclusion that they are more prone to hyperbole than most people would have them to) and more with the (supported by Buddhism) belief that death is an inescapable part of life and, therefore, ubiquitous; everybody knows that, so why overstate it?
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.