how family remembrance and ancestor worship shape everyday life – 71Bait

Every year the people of Japan celebrate ohigana period of seven days around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and obonspanning a few days on either side of August 15th.

The employer grants vacation time to the staff. The trains fill up with people returning to their family homes from big cities like Tokyo and Osaka (so-called ie) in the countryside.

These national holidays are an opportunity to rekindle relationships with grandparents and extended family. They are also a time when people visit their family graves.

Many Japanese do not profess any particular faith. However, at these specific times of the year, they visit family graves in a practice akin to ancestor worship.

While to Western sensibilities the idea of ​​“worship” implies a religious connection, as anthropologist Jason Danely has put it, “the commemoration of ancestors is such a sane and mundane practice that for most people it is indistinguishable from the non-religious World.”

As a social and cultural psychologist, I have researched people’s pilgrimages to war gravediggers in Japan and Britain. In Japan – where I’m originally from – visiting the graves of family members and friends is an everyday cultural ritual and practice of social or collective remembrance.

People attend the Daimonji festival in Kyoto, where huge bonfires are lit to lead ancestors back to heaven.
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As obon is celebrated

On the first day of obonOn August 13, people greet their ancestral spirits in their homes with offerings of food and flowers at shrines or altars. They spend the next few days thanking their ancestors, eating together, and deepening their bonds. On August 16, the end of the festival, they throw a bonfire and send the spirits back to their world.

A small wall altar with a rope and folded paper elements.
A household kamidana.
Nesnad | Wikimedia, CC-BY-NC

The altars in the houses are decorated with special trays and lanterns, similar to Christmas decorations in the West. For people who are culturally Buddhist, this altar becomes a Butsudan. For Shinto households, a kamidana.

However, many traditional houses have both types, and indeed a third, a tokonomawhere seasonal art objects (such as bonsai trees or ikebana flower arrangements) are on display.

A plastic bottle of tea and a bowl of rice cakes with other goodies in a plastic container on a tombstone.
Food and drink left as offerings on a family grave during Obon.
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While obon and ohigan, people are also cleaning their family graves more carefully than usual, similar to spring cleaning in the UK. This act of deep cleansing is symbolic of the hope that the heart and mind will also be cleansed.

After cleaning, people leave offerings: flowers, sweets, or the deceased person’s favorite food. They also light incense sticks to show they are ready to welcome the deceased. They then thank the deceased family members and ancestors and pray for peace and good health.

Vegetables on wooden sticks on gray stone bases.
Cucumber and eggplant ghost horses on tombstones in a Japanese cemetery.
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After cleaning is served Ohagi and Odango (glutinous rice balls) and vegetarian dishes as offerings. These change from region to region. In many places people make so-called ghost horses (shouryouma) made from whole cucumbers and cows made from eggplants to symbolically speed up the ancestors’ journey to their parents’ home.

The importance of remembering the ancestors

Both together ohigan and obon is that it is a time spent with and cherished by one’s ancestors. According to Japanese law, the day of the vernal equinox is a holiday that “celebrates nature and cares for living beings.” The autumnal equinox is a holiday that “respects the ancestors and mourns the dead.”

Obon It is believed to have evolved from ancient rituals as well as the Buddhist festival of urabon-e (ullambana, in Sanskrit) and Confucian thought. While urabon-eFamily members, their relatives and close friends gather to commemorate the deceased and to thank their ancestors.

The festival fused the ancient Japanese ideas of respecting ancestral spirits with the Buddhist idea of ​​saving those who fell into it gaki-do (“The Way of the Hungry Ghosts”) through a memorial service.

Two people in front of gray tombstones with lanterns in the sunlight.
An elderly couple prays at a family grave during the Obon.
Photo Japan | Alamy

Ohiganmeanwhile, is thought to lead to the practice of Rokuharamitsuor reach the state of enlightenment. Higan means “the other side of the river”, as opposed to the world of material desires we live in which is called konogishi (“this page”).

Animism has been part of everyday thinking in Japan since ancient times, where people, animals and plants are viewed as living together. Research shows how such animistic practices that are ingrained in people’s memories and experiences continue to thrive.

An older couple from behind with a monk and an altar.
A family prays with a Buddhist monk at a Butsudan altar.
SAND555UG | Shutterstock

With an increasingly aging population and changes in the nuclear family, the way people live and die is changing. Despite these changes obonhow ohigan, remains an integral cultural and social practice connecting people to their family and ancestors. Additionally, it maintains a broader connection to their spiritual roots in an amalgamation of diverse beliefs about the living and the dead.

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