Celebrating and remembering ancestors during Obon season

People dance during the 2018 Bon Odori Festival in Seattle. Photo by Arisa Nakamura

People dance during the 2018 Bon Odori Festival in Seattle. Photo by Arisa Nakamura


Summer in Japan is the season for Obon. In the Buddhist tradition, it is believed that this is the
time when the spirits of one’s ancestors will return to visit. Therefore, Obon is celebrated in
order to honor and remember those who have passed on.

During the Obon season, people will typically travel back to their ancestral homes to participate in the local festivals and visit their family graves. Obon itself is observed in August, but summer festivals are held throughout July and August depending on the region.

Festivals feature booths for traditional street food, crafts, and games. At the end of Obon,
lanterns are lit to guide the spirits back to their world.

Of course, the main event of the festival is the Bon Odori (盆踊り), or Bon Dance. The dance
style and music varies depending on the region and often have a theme based on what the area is famous for. In Hakodate for example, there is a dance called Ika-Odori (函館イカ踊り) that
features the many squid dishes that the city specializes in. But no matter the dance, all are
performed to welcome the visiting spirits and to express joy at being able to live happily.
Dances are done in a circle around a yagura (やぐら), or tower, from where musicians, such as
taiko drummers, will provide the beat. Many of the people who attend the festivals dress up in
light Japanese summer yukata (浴衣), but any light summer clothing is acceptable. Participation
in Bon Odori is diverse in terms of both age, background, and skill level since there is an
emphasis on having fun dancing そのまま(sonomama), or “as you are”, without inhibitions.

The tradition of Bon Odori continues today even outside of Japan. In the 1930s, Buddhist
minister Yoshio Iwanaga is credited with popularizing Bon Odori among Japanese Americans by arranging new regional songs specifically for those living in the cities of the West Coast.
Summer festivals utilizing these songs still continue throughout North America.

In Seattle, the 86th annual Bon Odori Festival is held at the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple and is a part of the local Seafair summer events. Other cities in the Puget Sound region also have annual Bon Odori events, including Olympia, Tacoma, and White River Valley.

If you’re looking for something fun to do this summer, join in on the regional Bon Odori Festivals and dance your heart out!