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Let’s Go! – The Obon Festivals of California

The midsummer celebration you need to check outby Alexander Quebec

All across the United States, especially in California, many cities with a large population of Japanese Americans will be hosting the Bon Festival. While each city will most certainly have a different take on it, the traditional rituals, customs and of course, foods will most certainly make an appearance. But what is the Bon Festival? Read on to learn more

The Festival

The Obon festival (also called Bon festival in some instances) is a Buddhist festival that has been celebrated in Japan for over 500 years. Usually celebrated in Midsummer (either in July, August, or the 15th day of the 7th month depending on which calendar is used), the festival commemorates the spirits of ancestors and thier contributions to the family. Many in Japan celebrate Obon by visiting their hometowns to clean the graves of their ancestors and other deceased relatives. It is said that the spirit world is closest to the land of the living at this time, and that the spirits will visit the altars of the living family members home, and so, many homes in Japan light Chochin lanterns to welcome the spirits back into our world. Many then celebrate at a gathering at the local park, temple, shrine or other gathering places for a festival.

The Yagura stage, the center of the dance and festivities of the Bon festival

The event usually features food, entertainment and the Bon Odori, a dance performed at every festival around the yagura stage, to the beat of taiko drums. The Bon Odori was danced first by Mokuren, a disciple of Buddha, who peered into the underworld and saw his deceased mother suffering in the realm of Hungry Ghosts. Troubled by seeing his own mother suffering, he sought the help of the Buddha, who instructed him to make an offering to all of the Buddhist monks returning from their summer retreats. As soon as he completed his task, which happened to occur on the 15th day of the 7th month, he was able to free his mother’s soul from the realm based on the merits of his deeds. The elation of seeing his mother free, as well as understanding her selflessness and compassion in caring for him as a child, compelled Mokuren to dance for joy. To this day, the dance symbolizes the appreciation many Japanese have for the works of their ancestors.



Toro Nagashi, or sending the spirits on their way back to the afterlife.

Many festivals end Obon with the Toro Nagashi, or the lighting of a lantern on top of a boat, which sails down a river into the ocean. This acts as a beacon for the spirits, sending them off back to the spirit realm


Japanese in California

But how did the festival get here? To get an idea of where the festival came from, you should also know how the Japanese arrived here in the first place.

The first Japanese to arrive in America came after the Meiji Restoration in Japan in the late 1800s. Arriving as manual laborers for the farms and plantations in both Hawaii and California, eventually, many Japanese became landowners themselves. However, the California Alien Land Law of 1913 ended the practice of allowing immigrants “ineligible for citizenship”, including the Japanese, the right to purchase and own land. The Immigration Act of 1924 prevented any further immigration by Japanese nationals to the USA.

Japanese farmer near an irrigation channel in an undated photo

1941 would bring about major changes to the Japanese American diaspora. Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese Imperial Navy, the United States declares war on Japan (and subsequently, Nazi Germany and Italy) thus bringing the country into World War II. With the signing of Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942, all persons of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps throughout the country such as Tule Lake and Manzanar for the duration of the war. It would be almost 40 years later that the US Government would acknowledge and make amends for the internment as the result of wartime paranoia and hysteria.

Executive order 9066, ordering all persons of Japanese Ancestry to relocate to designated camps across America

Today, the Japanese American population is around  1.4 million (2015), with California having the most Japanese Americans in the US. California also has the distinction of having the last official remaining Japantowns in all of the United States (San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles). It’s in these places where you’ll find many of the major Bon festivals happening this summer.

Where to go?
Many of the major cities in California with a significant Japanese population usually host their own Obon Festival. You can check out events in your area by clicking here.

So, now that you know a bit more about Obon, check out our slideshow of some popular foods you might see at your local Obon festival.








Cover Photo: g_offoni via youtube.

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