Okinawan Obon (Kyubon)

This week marks the start of obon in Okinawa.  Unlike in mainland Japan, where obon occurs in July or August, this special period occurs in late August, on the 15th day of the seventh month of the old kyureki calendar.  As with jurokunichi and the recent harvest ceremony umachi, Kyu Bon follows the calendar of the old Ryukyu Kingdom. In 2012, Kyubon falls on August 30, 31, and September 1.

Bon, or Obon is a three-day event with roots in Buddhist and Confucian teaching that spread from China.  It is a time when families welcome back their dead ancestors and honor them before sending them back to the next life.  In modern days it has become a time for family reunions and returns to birthplaces.  Families join together for the three days to celebrate their parted relatives and continue family traditions.

Day One

On the first day of Kyubon, families join together at their local ohaka.  These family shrines are common in Okinawa and house the cremated remains of a family.  The ohaka range in design, but generally the larger older ones are in the shape of a womb and tunnel into a cliff face or natural cave, while newer ones are often like small houses and are separate.  The family brings food and lights to welcome the ancestors.  Each family has its own traditions, though there are some similarities.  The day is often similar to that of the Kyureki New Years.

One difference is that lanterns are often hung at the entry way to the house property to light the way as well as lanterns at the house shrine.

Day Two

Every family is different, but from what I’ve been told, each family makes offerings at their family butsudan (small shrine inside a home) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner of each day of Kyubon.  The butsudan is decorated with offerings of fruit and sake, and other foods are placed before the shrine.

On Kumejima, there is a tradition of Eisa performances on the second night of Kyubon.  There are several throughout the island, each with their own local custom.  Last year I attended the one for my local community.  There were Eisa performances by children and adults, dancing, and live local music.  In essence, it is a time for the community to come together and be one, just as families come together for the Kyubon days.

Unlike performance groups at other festivals, the Eisa during Kyubon is performed by members of the community with only a few weeks practice.  It is meant as part offering and welcome.  In addition to Eisa, a traditional bon odori or dance is performed to music.

Day Three

The third day at sunset is the time for the ancestors to leave for another year.  In addition to the first two offerings, a final one will be made, and the spirits of ancestors will be said farewell to for another year.   Many families used to shoot off small fireworks to scare any reluctant spirits back, but the fireworks display has grown more popular.

Only one of the local community celebrations in Kumejima, the largest, does fireworks during Kyubon.  For practicality’s sake, the fireworks occur on the second day at the end of the community Eisa celebrations.