Lighting the Way: Summer Festival of the Dead in Japan

Japan has been getting a lot of attention lately for its “suicide culture” recently, a phenomenon brought into the spotlight by Larissa MacFarquhar in her new article in The New Yorker. But suicide isn’t all there is to the Japanese understanding of death and the dead. A much more lighthearted example would be the Obon Festival.

Oban FestivalWhile it is a lesser-known festival outside of Japan, it is one of the most universally celebrated events within the country. Obon is a Buddhist festival for commemorating the dead, particularly one’s ancestors. The holiday usually starts in either mid-July or mid-August, depending on the region and local custom. The Kanto region (Tokyo) will be celebrating this weekend from July 13-15.

As events commemorating the dead go, this one is kind of awesome. It’s basically a big party that the dead are “invited” to join. Across the country, graves are tidied up, food offerings are, there are huge dances in the community centers, and it’s all ended with a trip to the beach for a ritual bonfire and lantern send off.

Regardless of the exuberance of the festivities, I am left to wonder: what makes this holiday relevant to a country advanced enough to have the third highest average life expectancy rate (and simultaneously the third highest suicide rate in the developed world), a nearly 100% literacy rate, and  metropolitan areas supporting tens of millions of people? As far as holidays like this go, Japan isn’t alone: Dia de los Muertos, or even the commemorations we make on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day are similar. Are holidays celebrating, and even inviting the presence of the dead back in to our lives temporarily, really necessary to people in this day and age? Check out this video from Thomas Shomaker of the Huffington Post for a look at the festivities, and decide for yourself.