Summertime… and the dead come to visit

My birthday meal - what a feast! Thanks, Anna!!

There are some interesting things about this time of year in Japan. One of the funnest things for me is that its my birthday in August (14th if you were wondering!). This year Anna made sure I had a great day celebrating (a great few days actually!) – thanks, Anna!

I discovered a confusing thing: summer ended on August 6th. This may seem very precise to you – it does to me. Stationary shops changed all the letter writing paper and cards to fit the new season and have the right seasonal greetings on them. (Apparently the first day of autumn, Aug 7th is called Rishuu, one of 24 days with special names to mark the change in Japanese seasons.) The funny thing is that the weather has still been very hot for Hokkaido (around 30C most days). So, calendars will tell you summer ended on August 6th. But most people in Hokkaido think of summer as ending on August 16th, after Obon.

In the West we have Christmas and Easter; in Japan we have New Year’s and Obon. Obon is the summer festival of the dead. Its one of 2 times a year that almost everyone goes back to their home towns to be with family. Even though it’s not a national holiday, most companies will let their employees off work. The idea is that the spirits of their dead ancestors come back home for 3 days. So, to give them a happy welcome, there is feasting, music, and special Obon dancing. On the last day of the festival, people visit the graves of their ancestors to worship and pray to them. My Japanese teacher told me that in some parts of Japan, they will go to the grave at the beginning of the festival, give a piggy-back to their ancestors’ spirits, take them home, and let them off their back. But I don’t think that’s common.

a typical Japanese grave

Around this time, perhaps the week before, some churches will make a visit to the graves of church members who have gone home to be with Jesus. Instead of praying to the dead, they will thank God for the lives of the deceased and be inspired by their examples in life… rather like remembering the ‘cloud of witnesses’ of Hebrews 11.

On Obon Sunday as we cycled home after church, we saw queues of people lining up outside all the restaurants. These days everyone goes out for lunch as a family to celebrate. This is strange too; the ancestors’ spirits are thought to live in the grave, then for these 3 days of the year they go to the family home. But during those 3 days while the spirits are in the home, the living family go out dancing on the streets, go out for meals and visit the grave where the spirits spend the rest of the year…

'Obon Odori' - dance of the festival of the dead

Actually, it seems your average Japanese person doesn’t believe all of that, but they enjoy the festivities and meeting with family. I remember as a child, going to bed in the summer to the sound of the music and drums of the Obon dancing. It all seems like harmless fun a lot of the time, but it’s another example of the need for the Light of the World to shine in this dark place. Please pray!

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