LAUREN CRAVEN WRITES — In the US, we have Halloween. Then there is the Day of the Dead, which originated in Mexico. In Japan every year, the Obon festival is celebrated in most regions from the 13th to the 15th day of August.
It’s an incredibly popular event in Japan, although not an official holiday. Still, many people take up to fifteen days of vacation during what is called Obon week. Both the festival and those weeks are centered around honoring loved ones and ancestors who have passed away-by celebrating their lives. Japanese people leave offerings, hang lanterns to lead the spirits home, clean and decorate graves, and even talk to their loved ones as it is believed that their spirits can return to Earth and be with their families. It is a happy time that includes dancing, street food, and a large bonfire at the beginning and end of the festival.
The origins of Obon can be found in a Buddhist story in which the supernatural powers of a disciple of Buddha were used to connect with his dead mother. As the tale goes, the mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. So it is during this season that many Japanese people discuss what is known as ‘Obake.’
Obake arose from a Japanese superstition with origins in the ancient religion of Shintoism. Defined as shapeshifters, they can be animals, plants, or spirits which are temporarily turned into anything from monsters to humans. They can be ugly or beautiful, whether “seen” in ancient Japanese myths or modern Japanese media such as manga and anime.
There have been sightings of these Obake since ancient times throughout Japan, but in the mid- 1900’s many were sighted in the Hawaiian Islands-or so it is believed by Japanese immigrants. A notable example: In 1959, at the Waialae Drive-in built next to a cemetery, patrons of the theater reportedly saw a “long-haired woman without a face.” It was thought that the spirit was an Obake that took the form of a faceless Japanese ghost known as a noppera-bō.
Obake culture and celebrations may not be well-known around the world, as are Halloween and Day of the Dead, but they haunt the past and the present in Japan, with no sign of disappearing in the future near or far.