Obon in Okinawa

Obon in Okinawa

by 1stLt. George McArthur
U.S. Marine Corps

OKINAWA, Japan -- Americans living and working in Okinawa will notice a change in the atmosphere during a few days in mid-August, as normally-packed local businesses and restaurants are idle, yet the streets have more traffic than usual as families take their special annual commute. The first couple of days are quiet, then on the evening of the third, tight-knit communities become electric with song and dance as the observance of Obon draws to a close. This year, Obon will take place on Okinawa from Monday through Wednesday, August 15-17, as one of the most sacred traditions many of the almost one-and-a-half million people here celebrate.

Deeply rooted in Buddhist history, the Okinawan observance of Obon runs from 13-15 July on the traditional lunar calendar, which corresponds to around a month later on the Gregorian one. During Obon, families invite ancestral spirits to visit their homes, and it is very important as a time when people celebrate together before their kins’ spirits return to the other world. The eldest living sons’ households maintain the Butsudan altar, so many families will travel throughout the three days: Unkeh, Nakabi, and Ukui as the “welcoming, middle” and “seeing-off” days, respectively.

Obon concludes with the impassioned singing, dancing and playing of Eisa groups performing throughout their towns and villages. Every community has unique customs and traditions, but generally the groups will march through the streets as families gather to bid their ancestors’ spirits a farewell until the next year. During this final Ukui evening and late into the night, Eisa will add to the celebration and many people will gather in their central crossroads, so be aware of the activity and if observing, ensure to be properly respectful of the tradition.

During Obon, be mindful to show respect for those honoring their tradition and ensure your actions are in keeping as members of our shared Okinawan community. Understand that many local restaurants and businesses will be closed during these three days, and that there will be increased traffic as families are travelling to share this season with their relatives all across the island – use the opportunity to learn more about unique Okinawan customs and traditions such as Obon.

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