Obon is time for family gathering to remember ancestors
For three days starting on Friday, August 20th through Sunday, August 22nd, many privately owned businesses on Okinawa will close their stores to take timeout to honor one of Okinawa’s longtime traditions. The occasion is “Obon,” one of three primary holidays here in Okinawa. In summary, Obon is a time for welcoming ancestral spirits back to their love ones who still walk the earth. It is a family reunion of sorts; and though death has separated both the living and the dead, Obon is really a celebration of life; life here and the life beyond.
*Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of local Okinawan would not gather together under one roof for Obon, and stay home, just very short visit or do remote meet up this year.
Obon has its origins in Buddhism where ancestral spirits are believed to return to the human world in order to visit relatives. Obon is celebrated in mainland Japan as well, occurring every year from August 13th through the 15th. However, in Okinawa, Obon adheres to the Lunar Calendar, or Chinese Calendar, and thus the dates will vary from year to year, usually falling sometime in August or September of the Gregorian Calendar. Relatives gather at the home of the family ‘butsudan’ (family alter) to pray for their deceased friends and family members, with the particular focus on those who have died within the last year.
The first day of Obon is referred to as “Unkeh.” It is a time for families to gather at the primary family household (the household with the family butsudan) to purify the home and the altar. Family members then often place fruit, water, sake and tea. In the evening, candles are lit at the altar and at the entranceway of the house to invite the spirits back inside their homes. Because it is a celebratory occasion, Eisa dances are performed on the streets everywhere and within the neighborhoods. The sounds of taiko drums and the sanshin musical instruments can be heard playing harmoniously throughout all three nights.
The second day of Obon is called “Nakabi,” On this day relatives visit each others’ houses to greet and pray in front of the bustusdan.
The third and final day of Obon, is “Uukui.” This is usually the time when family members gather and celebrate with a lavish dinner before preparing to send the ancestral spirits back to the celestial world. In sending them off, special paper money, called “uchikabi,” is offered to the spirits. Uchikabi paper is imprinted with coin patterns to signify its symbolic nature, heavenly money that can use it in their new world. About midnight, family members will remove the offerings from the altar and move them to the family gate in front of the home. Incense will be lit and the uchikabi will be set on fire sending the ashes to the heavens. All this happens as the family members say goodbye to their ancestors and pray for their safe return the following year.
It is important to note that each Okinawan family may do something little different than what is mentioned above, particularly in the remote islands of Okinawa. Many of these customs are handed down from generation to generation. Most customs are taught through experience. However, at the core of it all, Obon is a time to remember the past and to give thanks to those who once walked this earth. It is a time where the two worlds, both the living and the celestial, come together to celebrate this mysterious force known as life.