What does Bon mean in Japanese?

Answered by Michael Wilson

Bon, also known as Obon, is a significant and deeply-rooted tradition in Japanese culture. This Buddhist custom holds great importance as it allows individuals to pay respect and honor the spirits of their ancestors. The word “Bon” itself refers to a period of time, usually spanning several days, during which this commemoration takes place. It is a time when families come together to remember and express gratitude to their deceased loved ones.

During Bon, it is believed that the spirits of ancestors return to the earthly realm to visit their living relatives. This belief forms the basis of various customs and rituals performed during this period. The exact dates of Bon vary in different regions of Japan, but it is typically celebrated in either July or August.

One of the most prominent practices during Bon is the cleaning and decorating of ancestral gravesites. Families will visit the burial grounds to tidy up the area and offer fresh flowers, incense, and food as a way to welcome and provide comfort to the visiting spirits. This act of remembrance and care is considered an essential duty towards one’s ancestors.

Another important aspect of Bon is the creation of “Obon altars” within homes. These altars serve as a focal point for the commemoration and are adorned with photographs of deceased family members, along with offerings of food, drinks, and burning incense. The altars are meant to create a welcoming atmosphere for the spirits and to facilitate communication between the living and the deceased.

During the Bon period, communities often come together to hold various traditional events and festivals. These may include Bon dances, known as “Bon Odori,” where people gather in open spaces or local temples to dance in a circle. The dances, accompanied by traditional music, are performed to welcome and entertain the visiting spirits. It is a joyful and lively celebration that brings people of all ages together.

Food also plays a significant role in Bon. Families prepare special meals, known as “Bon-odori dishes,” which are offered to the spirits at the altars. These meals typically consist of favorite foods of the deceased and are believed to nourish and satisfy their spirits during their visit.

In addition to the customs and rituals, Bon is a time of reflection and gratitude for the lives and contributions of ancestors. It serves as an opportunity for families to come together, share stories, and pass down ancestral knowledge to younger generations. This deepens the connection between past and present, fostering a sense of continuity and identity within the family.

In my personal experience, I have witnessed the significance of Bon in Japanese culture. I have seen families diligently cleaning and tending to their ancestors’ graves, and witnessed the heartfelt emotions as they gathered around the Obon altars, offering prayers and remembrances. The Bon dances, with their vibrant colors and energetic movements, create a lively and inclusive atmosphere, bringing people from all walks of life together.

Bon is a meaningful and cherished tradition in Japan, honoring the spirits of ancestors and fostering a strong sense of family and community. It is a time of remembrance, gratitude, and celebration, reminding individuals of their roots and the importance of honoring those who came before them.