About the Bon Festival

About the Bon Festival

The Bon Festival is absolutely indispensable for talking about summer in Japan. Every year when the rainy season is over, people always talk about how to spend the Bon season. Depending on the person, there are various ways to spend this time, such as returning to their old houses or relaxing. Even though the Bon festival becomes a vast topic every summer, the official name of the Bon festival is not widely known. In fact, knowing the official name of Bon is a touch of origin and history. At the same time, knowing the official name of Bon will lead to a reconfirmation of what it is for.

The official name is “Urabon’e”

This is the Bon Festival that we receive every year, but its official name is “Urabon’e(盂蘭盆会).” The reading is called “Urabon-e,” The second character, “蘭,” means orchard. Still, it is somewhat unnatural because the original pronunciation of the character is “Ran.” Actually, this word, “Urabon’s,” was not a word that originated in Japan. Its origins date back to ancient India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

The origin of “Urabon’e”

What exactly is the origin of “Urabon’e”? First of all, the word “Urabon’e” initially originated from the ancient Sanskrit word “Urabanna” in ancient India. And, surprisingly, the meaning of “Uravanna” is “upside-down.” This “upside-down” led to the Bon Festival for ancestor memorial service because it was based on the story of the pupil of the Buddha called Maudgalyayana. He was famous for having the most significant magical power among Buddha’s disciples, but one day through the magical power, he saw his mother who fell into hell after death, hanging upside down and suffering. When he asked Buddha, he was told that if he made excellent hospitality to monks on July 15th in the old calendar when the monks finished their training, his mother in hell could be saved. So he welcomed the monks who had completed their training as told by Buddha, his mother was able to rise and be reborn as a Pure Land. This story spread with Buddhism, and after being translated into Chinese from “Urabon’e” in China, it was transmitted to Japan. It has become established as a custom known as “Bon” in the country. Besides, the story is written in the Sutra. Still, since the original source is not left in India, there is a theory that it was created with Chinese Taoism.

History of Bon

When it got delivered to Japan

It’s said that the history of the Bon Festival in Japan began with Japanese Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, although there are various theories about the official year. It’s unclear that the customs of the Bon festival were transmitted during the period. Still, on July 15th, in 606AC, Emperor Suiko (the first female emperor in Japan) took the first memorial service of the Bon Festival in history. However, the festival had already been merged with the tradition of ancestor worship in Japan at this stage, even before the introduction of Buddhism. After that, in the Nara period, Emperor Shomu (famous for establishing the Great Buddha of Nara) will make the Bon Festival a regular event on July 14th every year. During the Heian period, the official memorial service was held every year as a formal event for the entire Imperial Court.

During the Edo period, the festival spread to the general public

The tradition of the Bon explained above took place not only in the imperial family but also among the relatively upper-class people in society, such as aristocrats, samurai classes, and monks. In the Kamakura era, one event was held during the Bon season to offer a memorial service to ancestors who were unable to achieve Buddhism. However, the Bon Festival around this time was very unrelated to ordinary people. As is the case today, the festival became established as widely as it was in the Edo period. In the Edo era, the candles needed for Buddhist altars and lanterns were mass-produced by the ordinary people, and the festival got popular among the regular people. Besides, with the spread of Bon customs, local Bon Festival events were started to get held. Typical examples are the Bonfire in Kyoto, and the lanterns and Bon Odori found all over Japan.

Definition of the Bon in the current era

So what does the traditional Bon Festival mean today? Since Japan’s Bon Festival has been a fusion of ancient ancestor worship since it was first introduced, it is an event to visit graves and greet people to memorialize and thank their ancestors. The festival was held around July 15th of the lunar calendar because the Urabon’e was happening. However, due to the influence of the Meiji Era calendar modification, today’s Bon Festival is from 13th to 16th, generally known, and July 13th to 16th, depending on the region. When it is held in July, it is often called the “Old Bon.”