Banzai: a traditional Japanese exclamation meaning “ten thousand years,” shortened from a more involved cry to the Emperor of Japan, Tenno Heika Banzai” (天皇陛下萬歲, “Long live the Emperor”).
“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
These last two weeks have been very spiritual in atmosphere and experience for me. The untimely passing of a close friend and brother skydiver, necessitating such a permanent goodbye on top of an already tough sayonara to my friends and family, has had me reaching both inside and out for a reconnection with a more spiritual dimension of life. While I cannot attest (nor do I want to) that I am a man of any particular denominational faith, I remain a being of faith…that there is something more that binds us in our shared human experience, which allows us to live on in some form or fashion across epoch and cosmos. Crudely stated, for me personally, perhaps the best evidence for any god can be found in the unpretentious and pure love of a cat. Love, in fact, may be the only evidence of a higher power that remains tangible for most, visible to all.
I was struck at my friend Jimmy’s memorial how much the service, at the Church and at the graveside, centered on the Christian God and in assisting Jimmy in finding salvation through his system of beliefs. Jim was a devout Catholic, and no matter what is stated here, I wish to take nothing from his faith, something he held so dear. But the lack of focus, comment, or even celebration of “Jimmy” left me feeling empty and at odds with myself – and the services. The goodbye that most Western faiths offer is too final, or only offers a “see ya on the other side” where one is expected to wait until their own demise to once again be reunited with departed loved-ones.
I used to think that funerals were quite pedestrian, almost unnecessary. Until I started to lose friends and shipmates in the Navy, and over time I realized that such services really do not serve the dead any purpose whatsoever, but are for the living. What “the living” want and need out of such rituals varies, but I believe at a common denominator, they all should assist those still in the realm of life to connect, even if for a moment, with the ether of the dead.
But what is wrong with conversing with the spiritual world now? If there is such a dimension, ought there be something more between it and us than simply outwaiting time for death to arrive and reunify? Certainly I’m not the only one to think so; why else would we visit graves, leave mementos, and converse with the dead so often and for so long? However, such facets of western faith are not formally recognized (in my experienced) nor practiced (well), and certainly not embraced as a public holiday or part and parcel of American culture.
Then Jody and I relocate to Okinawa. Amidst the bustle and hustle of our international move, fraught with having to secure off-base housing on the economy, purchasing, registering and insuring two vehicles, and getting Jody checked into work and me checked into the military’s machine here on-island, we arrive exactly at one of the most spiritual times for the Okinawans: Obon.
Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. There to be two main types of religion or spiritual tradition in Japan: Shinto and Buddhism. While mainland (Honshu) Japan is more Shinto in many areas, Okinawa retains a large Buddhist community, reflecting roots which run deep and long with Korea and China. This Buddhist-Confucian custom here has evolved into a family-reunion of sorts, and is now a Prefecture (a geographical region akin to a state) holiday during which Okinawans return to ancestral family dwellings after visiting and cleaning family gravesites, after which whose spirits are invited to revisit “home” and reunite with the living. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori, which in (and only in) Okinawa is more specifically called Eisa.
The festival of Obon lasts for three days, but is celebrated at differing times in Japan depending upon where one resides. When the lunar calendar, used by the Japanese in more ancient times, was changed to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era (early 20th century), some localities refused to change their spiritual observances, resulting in three different times of Obon. “Shichigatsu Bon” (Bon in July) is based on the solar calendar and is celebrated around the 15th of July in eastern Japan, such as the Kantō region, including Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku areas. “Hachigatsu Bon” (Bon in August), the most common observance of Bon, is based on the lunar calendar and is celebrated around the 15th of August. “Kyu Bon” (Old Bon) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so this observance differs each year. “Kyu Bon” is celebrated in areas like the northern part of the Kantō region, Chūgoku region, Shikoku, and the Okinawa Prefecture. In Okinawa, the third day of Bon is a holiday and most businesses are closed mid-week.
We arrived on-island on the 16th of August, and just this past week Bon was celebrated here from the 19th through the 21st of August. At night, just after sundown, you could hear throughout the adjoining neighborhoods the traditional music, drums, and whistling which accompany the celebration of Bon and the performance of Eisa. During the day gravesites were refreshed and traffic was heavy as families traveled the island to share this special time at childhood homes.
Eisā (エイサー) is a form of Okinawan folk dance originally derived from Bon celebrations. This dance is performed by the younger people of each community during the Bon festival to honor the spirits of their ancestors, but it certainly doesn’t exclude the older generations, usually seen playing the traditional Okinawa instruments. It is a vital part both of Bon on Okinawan, being intricately woven into the very cultural fabric here, designed to embrace and guide good spirits, while keeping unmentionables at bay.
Days before Obon begins, many families gather to clean their ancestors’ graves to help demonstrate to the spiritual world that all will soon be able to share time in the land of the living.
On the first day of Obon known as “unkeh,” chochin lanterns are lit inside houses, and people go to their family’s grave to call their ancestors’ spirits back home (“mukae-bon”). In some regions, fires called “mukae-bi” are lit at the entrances of houses to help guide the spirits home, brightening up doorways across the island as the living stand in front of their homes to help greet spirits as darkness descends. Homes are cleaned, and a variety of food offerings are placed at a butsudan
(Buddhist altar) along with the chochin lanterns and colorful and fresh flower arrangements. In Okinawa, a bundle of 13 short pieces of sugar cane and a long, uncut cane are also placed on the side of the altar; while most offerings of food are made in pairs or in a package, the countable foods like the sugar cane are always given in odd-number increments. The long piece is said to be used as a walking stick by the spirits as they leave the house and return to their tombs. That evening, families dine on a porridge-like meal known as “jushi,” offered to and shared with the spirits of their deceased relatives.
During the second night (“nakabi”), ancestors are offered three meals. The day is dedicated to family members visiting with relatives and apologizing to their ancestors for not communicating for so long (read: CALL YOUR MOMMA). They pray for forgiveness and offer additional gifts to the spirits.
The third and final day of Bon (“ukui”), the climax of the family reunification, centers on a farewell dinner which is carefully prepared and placed before the butsudan into a special box called the “jyubako” as a final offering for the spirits, along with sake, tea and other special foods. The family also prepares the “minnuku,” a special meal made of grass or scraps of
food that can be offered to any bad spirits or homeless, wandering spirits which the ancestors might meet on their journey back to the tomb. To ensure that the spirits will have no needs as they cross back over into the spiritual world, “uchikabi,” money made of paper and stamped with the shape of a coin by a hammer and iron mold is placed on the jyubako. The entire family – living and dead – comes together in front of the butsudan as the meal is prepared, and incense is burned while the family gives thanks for their good health and prays for the safety, happiness, and prosperity of the family in the year to come.
After the meal, men sing and play a banjo-like instrument made of snakeskin, called the “samisen.” Just before midnight the ancestral spirits are bid a fond farewell and the paper money is burned by the head of the family and his sons. They douse the ashes with tea and sake, and place the souvenir foods and the minnuku. A final pray is made to help ensure the spirits’ safe return to their tomb, and that they will again come back again and visit in the following year. Family members help return their ancestor’s spirits back to the grave, hanging chochin painted with the family crest to guide the spirits back to their resting places (“okuri-bon”). In some regions, fires called okuri-bi are lit at entrances of houses to assist in sending back their ancestors’ spirits. During Obon, the smell of senko incense fills Japanese houses and cemeteries.
The idea of formal, celebrated, and embraced spiritual reunifications with ancestral familial members has refreshed my feelings about death, loss, and my own spirituality. I believe we all could do well by taking part of a week each year to not just lament loss in our families or of our friends, or even to celebrate their lives past, but rather take three days to invite those we love back into not just our homes, but into our lives, in celebration of all that was, is, and remains to be. It is in embracing and inviting such spirituality into our ordinary lives that connects us through time and space, not simply via funerary mass.
While Jimmy got the sendoff he expected and deserved, and most were able to say a tearful “goodbye,” I choose not to idly wait to “see” him again. Rather, during Bon next year here in Okinawa, Jimmy, along with my own ancestry, will be welcomed into my life again to be reacquainted and celebrated. Just don’t tell Jody; most shishi dogs already freak her out (wink)!
Banzai, Uncle Bob!!
It is in this way we all may live for ten thousand years!
PS – thanks to a fellow blogger Maki Photography for use of some wonderful images!
- Charmed (fareastfling.me)
- Festival of Lanterns (paradelle.wordpress.com)
- Celebrate: Obon (uncoveringjapan.com)
- Crash Course: Eisa (uncoveringjapan.com)
- Obon (vanheb.wordpress.com)