Festival of Souls in Japan

by Olivea Shure
Families gather to share specially prepared foods during the Obon festival.

Families gather to share specially prepared foods during the Obon festival.

Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images

The Festival of Souls, also called Obon festival in Japanese, celebrates the souls of deceased loved ones and is held in communities across Japan and the United States. What was once an ancient Buddhist custom is now a lively festival that brings together food, dance and music for three days during the summer as families gather together to remember their ancestors. Traditionally, families will clean the grave sites of the deceased and help spirits find peace through guided offerings.


In Japanese culture Obon signifies the time when the spirits of ancestors return to their families for a visit. The folkloric roots behind the festival is from ancient times when Mokuren, a Buddhist monk, had a vision one day that his deceased mother was unhappy. He confided in a teacher for guidance and was told to perform good deeds for members of his community to allow his mother's soul to rest in peace. After the good deeds were performed, in celebration of his mother's newfound peace, the monk joyfully began dancing as a gesture of celebration.

Traditional Rituals

The Japanese people perform many rituals in preparation for, and during, the festival of souls that symbolize ways to guide the souls safely home. Families prepare foods like rice, vegetables, cakes and other sweets to share with their families and communities. On the first day of the Obon festival, lanterns are hung outside homes and next to gravesites as a way to welcome ancestors' souls home. A bondana, or special alter, is set up where families present flowers and food as offerings. The food gives spirits energy for the return journey to their resting place. At the festival grounds, different traditional Japanese foods are shared with the community. These include takoyaki (fried octopus), chicken karage (fried chicken pieces), udon noodles, sushi, dango (donut balls), manju (Japanese sweets) and shaved ice flavored with sweet red beans or milk.

Bon Dance

The Japanese believe the souls arrive at night to perform the Bon dances, or Bonodori. To help entertain the souls, people gather in open spaces or in parks and perform the dances in a circle around a wooden tower. Performers dance to light-hearted traditional Japanese music as a way to respect tradition and to welcome the souls with a happy mood.

Floating Lanterns

The Obon festival ends as families place floating lanterns, or toro nagashi, on the edge of a nearby river or bay with small fires burning within. The firelight represents the souls of the deceased and the floating lanterns represent the journey ancestors make back to their graves or resting places. When all the lanterns are in the water, fireworks cap the evening marking the end of the festivities.

About the Author

Based in New York City, Olivea Shure has been writing since 2007, with experience writing for wellness and public-relations companies. She has worked as an editor and researcher, serving as the New York Zone bureau chief for the "World Tribune," a newspaper with Soka Gakkai International. Shure holds a Bachelor of Arts in liberal arts and humanities from Soka University of America.

Photo Credits

  • Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images