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When Spirits Return: Obon and Hiroshima

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

bright night in Hiroshima

In the realm of Japanese culture, the intertwined forces of Shinto and Buddhism wield significant influence over the perception of death, dying, and grief. Embracing the inevitability of death, these religions guide individuals through the journey toward the afterlife.

The O bon Ceremony and Ancestral Tradition

O bon (お盆) is an annual Buddhist event commemorating one's ancestors, whose spirits are believed to temporarily return to this world in order to visit their relatives during O bon. The festival's origins can be traced back to religious observances in India and China, centering around commemorating the dead and appeasing spirits. Over time, the ritual became integrated into Japanese culture, evolving into a vibrant and significant event.

The heart of O bon lies in the story of Maha Maudgalyayana, a disciple of Buddha, who sought to rescue his mother from the realm of hungry ghosts. Buddha advised him to make offerings to monks on the 15th day of the 7th month, leading to the festival's dance and its symbolism, the bon odori. Contemporary O bon has become a time for Japanese families to return to their hometowns and honor their ancestors. The festival carries such significance that companies often grant special vacations to their employees. Various regions in Japan have their unique practices during O bon, such as the renowned Tokushima Awa Festival and the Gujo Odori Festival in Gifu.

Rituals during O bon include floating lanterns, toro nagashi, and sending ancestors to the heavens. The bon odori dance, performed in Kanto and Kansai styles, is an opportunity for both celebration and solidarity. The festival also features Mukaebi and Okuribi fires, welcoming and guiding spirits, and visits to family graves for tributes and offerings. The altar with the cucumber horse and eggplant cow is a whimsical and symbolic feature. The cucumber horse, adorned with cloth and bells, represents transportation for the spirits, while the eggplant cow serves as their companion. Rooted in Japanese folklore, these creations hold deep spiritual significance, aiding the spirits in their journey and ensuring a smooth passage. Beyond their symbolic role, they add joy to the festivities, reflecting Japan's respect for ancestors and cultural traditions. This artistic expression stands as a testament to the enduring traditions of Japan and the eternal bond between the living and the departed during Obon.

Hell on Earth: Hiroshima's Unforgettable Impact

After the Interim Committee's fateful decision, the Target Committee set its sights on destruction, and President Truman's proclamation cast a grim shadow on Japan. The world would soon bear witness to the harrowing power of the atomic bomb, as history changed forever in early August 1945.

Hiroshima became the first target, where the United States dropped "Little Boy," a uranium bomb. The city, bustling with civilians and soldiers, witnessed complete devastation. Between 90,000 and 166,000 souls perished in the aftermath, and the horror continued to unfold as radiation sickness and cancer claimed lives in the years that followed. The chilling accounts of the Enola Gay crew reveal the shock and awe of witnessing the aftermath. They stared at the monstrous mushroom cloud, tasting atomic fission, and witnessing flames creeping up the mountainsides. The city had vanished, leaving only a haunting, apocalyptic landscape. Nagasaki, hit by "Fat Man" three days later, experienced a similar fate. The city's old-fashioned wooden structures were no match for the bomb's blast, leaving nearly half of Nagasaki in ruins. The bluish light, brighter than a thousand suns, filled the sky, while fires and smoke engulfed the city.

The survivors' testimonials paint a harrowing picture of hellish scenes, where death and destruction reigned. People were vaporized instantly or suffered severe injuries, while those who survived faced a world they could no longer recognize. Nagasaki's population suffered greatly, with tens of thousands of lives lost in the initial explosion and subsequent chaos. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain powerful reminders of humanity's capacity for destruction. They left a scar on history, sparking endless debates and shaping the course of the modern world. The haunting accounts of those who witnessed the devastation serve as a solemn reminder that we must strive for peace and understanding to ensure such horrors are never repeated.

Peace and Nuclear Disarmament

This year, Japan's Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, voiced his opposition to Russia's nuclear threats. During the ceremony in Hiroshima, the mayor called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, criticizing the G7 leaders' notion of nuclear deterrence as a "folly." Participants in the memorial ceremony, including aging survivors, observed a moment of silence as a peace bell tolled at 8:15 am, the time the bomb was dropped. Amid the commemorations, concerns have risen due to Russian officials discussing the possibility of using nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine. While Western authorities have found no evidence of such preparations, the fear of nuclear threats remains palpable. Fumio Kishida acknowledged the increasing challenges in achieving a nuclear-free world, citing divisions in the international community over nuclear disarmament and Russia's nuclear posturing. However, he emphasized the importance of reviving international momentum toward the goal of nuclear disarmament.

Obon and Hiroshima

The connection between Obon and the Hiroshima bombing creates a profound understanding of how Japan's cultural practices surrounding death have been impacted by traumatic historical events. The memories of the victims of the atomic bomb become an intrinsic part of the annual commemoration, bridging the gap between the living and the departed. O bon offers a space for collective mourning, where the memories of the deceased merge with the horrors of the bombings, forging a deeper appreciation for the impermanence of life and the preciousness of every moment. The festival's rituals are not only a joyful celebration but also the liberation of a suffering spirit. The amalgamation of past trauma and cultural practices also underscores the resilience and adaptability of Japanese traditions. Despite the devastation caused by the bombings, O bon has endured, evolving to incorporate new layers of remembrance and meaning. It reflects the country's ability to assimilate loss into its cultural identity, finding solace and strength in ancestral connections.

In the face of suffering, O bon stands as a testament to Japan's capacity to face historical traumas with grace and resilience. It offers a space to reflect on the weight of history while reaffirming the timeless bond between the living and the departed. The intertwining of the O bon ceremony and the Hiroshima bombing fosters a deeper understanding of Japan's cultural practices around death, revealing a nation that both mourns and celebrates, finding meaning and healing in its enduring traditions.

The Japanese perception of death and dying defies singular interpretation. Each individual's understanding is a personal tapestry woven with unique threads. While research illuminates broader patterns, the complexity of human experiences reveals the multitude of ways these spiritual influences shape the cultural landscape. Embracing both reverence and diversity, Japan grapples with death and dying, guided by ancient beliefs that forge a life's eternal cycle.


1 Comment

Thomas  "Teejay" Joel
Thomas "Teejay" Joel
Aug 11, 2023

Nice article. Remembering those who have lived before us, give value to the life we have to live before us

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