How family commemoration, ancestral worship, and daily life are shaped by

The national holidays provide an opportunity to reconnect with grandparents and extended family. These holidays are also the time for people to visit their graves.

Many Japanese do not adhere to a specific religion. At these times of the year, they still visit graves, a ritual that is similar to ancestral worship.

As anthropologist Jason Danely put it: “ancestor commemoration is such a commonsense and mundane tradition that it’s indistinguishable to most people from the nonreligious world.”

As a cultural and social psychologist, I’ve studied pilgrimages made by people to the graves of war dead both in Japan and the UK. In Japan, where I am originally from, visiting the burial sites is a cultural practice and part of collective or social remembering.

Daimonji Festival in Kyoto: People light giant bonfires to guide their ancestors to heaven. Alamy

Obon: How is it celebrated?

The first day of Obon is August 13th. People welcome ancestral spirits into their homes by placing food and flowers on altars or shrines. The next few days are spent thanking the ancestors and eating together, 

In a similar way to spring cleaning in Britain, during Obon or Ohigan, people take more care than usual when cleaning their family graves. The deep cleaning symbolizes the desire to cleanse one’s mind and heart.

After cleaning, people leave gifts, such as flowers, sweets, or food that the deceased loved. Incense is also lit to indicate that the family members are prepared to receive the dead. Then, they thank their deceased family members and ancestors, and pray for good health.

Spirit horses made of cucumbers and aubergines atop gravestones in a Japanese cemetery. SAND555UG | Shutterstock

As an offering, after cleaning, people offer odangosticky rice balls, and vegetarian dishes. These vary from region to area. Many people in many countries make spirit cows ( shouryouma) and so-called spirit horse out of cucumbers.

Remembering your ancestors is important.

ohiganobon, and HTML2_ obon HTML2_ share the same commonality: they are both a time for spending with your ancestors and expressing gratitude. According to Japanese law, vernal day celebrates nature and takes care of living things. Autumnal Equinox Day is a day that “respects and mourns for the dead” according to Japanese law.

Obon evolved from ancient rituals as well as Buddhist festivals urabon-e and Confucianist thinking. During Urabon-e, family members, relatives, and close friends come together to honor the dead and thank their ancestors.

Through a memorial service, the festival combined the ancient Japanese idea of respecting ancestral spirits with Buddhist ideas about saving those who fell into “gaki-do” (“the way hungry ghosts”)

A couple of elderly people prays on a family grave during the summer obon. Alamy

Ohigan is believed to lead to Rokuharamitsu or achieving enlightenment. Higan is “the other side”, as opposed to the world we live in, which has material desires and is called Konogishi (this side).

Since ancient times, animism is a part and parcel of Japanese culture. People see humans, animals, and plants living in harmony. In such animistic beliefs, continues to thrive and is rooted in memories and experiences.

A Buddhist monk prays at a Butsudan altar with a family. Shutterstock

The way people die and live has changed due to an ageing population. obon and ohigan remain integral cultural and social practices, connecting people to their ancestors and family. It also maintains a wider connection to their spiritual roots through a fusion between different beliefs about both the living and dead.

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