The most beautiful image of Japan is majestic bamboo forests, moss covered stone lanterns, primordial glistening paths. the shoots swaying gently in a spring breeze the floor below dappled in beams of visible sunlight. A bird twitters, the bamboo creaks, a babbling stream you feel at one with the natural world, all at once timeless and infinite.
Japan, land of the incomprehensibly picturesque, of course has a word for just this occasion.
Obon (お盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour ones dead ancestors. It has been celebrated in Japan or over 500 hundred years; in recent years the traditional Buddhist Confucian customs have evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people travel back to their hometowns to visit relatives and clean the graves of passed family members.
The customs supposedly originate from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana, an important disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. He asked the Buddha how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and saw his mother’s release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him.
After she had moved up from the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (what a name!) he was so happy he danced for joy This birthed a new custom know as Bon Odori.
Bon Odori is different from region to region. Typically the dancers, dressed in light-weight summer kimonos known as yukata, line up in a circle around a wooden scaffold band stand. Large drums or taiko beat out the rhythm and the dancers proceed around and perform set dances. Each region has its own songs and moves. Tokyo has Tokyo Ondo, Hokkaido, Soran Bushi and Gifu has Gujo odori.
The moves are also influenced by the history of a region. One of the most famous dances is the Tanko Bushi from the Miike Mine area in Kyushu. Its moves depict mining life, digging, cart pushing, lantern hanging, etc.
Bon Odori has moved away from its religious roots and is now seen as a summer dance that is performed at most summer festivals. Current pop songs are also adapted to have an odori of their own.
Another Obon tradition involves making horses and cows out of cucumbers and aubergine. These are left on family altars, they are meant to be vehicles for spirits to get around. Also lanterns called bonchochin are placed beside the altar to help guide the spirits home.
After Obon the animals and lanterns are either floated in the ocean or rivers or burnt to ensure a safe journey back to the world of the spirits.
Obon is celebrated at 3 different times in differing parts of Japan. When the lunar calendar was replaced during the Meiji Restoration, regions reacted differently. The “official” Obon week is around August 15th. Although it is not a public holiday, leave is generally given and it is one of the busiest travel times in Japan with many places increasing prices.
electronic devices like phones, rice cookers and vehicles take ~dai (台)
一台 ichidai 二台 nidai 三台 sandai 四台 yondai 五台 godai
long things are hon (本) (the kanji means origin………….rude)
一本 ippon 二本 nihon 三本 sanbon 四本 yohon 五本 gohon
* the reason that rabbits take the bird counter instead of the animal one is that back back in time religious laws banned eating meat from land animals, but fish and birds were OK. Rabbits, with their long ears could be “mistaken for birds”
Just west of Okinawa, just east of Taiwan lie the Senkaku Islands.
A grouping of small uninhabited islands that are at the centre of an international debate due to the rich deposits of oil and natural gas lie just beneath them.
The Chinese claim ancient heritage over the islands, the first record of the islands can be found in Chinese literature dating from the 15th century. In 1895 they were annexed by the Japanese government. There were fisheries and processing plants until the 1940s. From 1945 to 1972 the islands were under American authority. When they were handed back to Japan (with much consternation from Taiwan) the islands were then sold to a family in Saitama Ken (next to Tokyo). The family is paid “rent” by the Japanese government provided they do not develop the islands. Regardless of this agreement a Japanese right wing party erected a Lighthouse in 1978 and a Shinto temple in 2000.
There are laws in place that prohibit boats docking on the islands and there are constant patrols to keep foreign boats out of the surrounding waters.
In 2010 a Chinese fishing boat collided with patrol boats near the islands. The captain and crew were held in custody in Japan pending possible charges, China strongly protested and the crew were released after a week.
Speaking at a think tank forum in Washington the outspoken and generally odd Governor of Tokyo Ishiihara announced the Tokyo Metropolitan government’s plans to buy the islands from the family. 70,000 private donations were received totalling just over one billion yen (12.5 million dollars).
“Tokyo will protect the Senkaku Islands. No matter which country dislikes it, no one should have a problem…..It would be best if we could buy the islands with donations because we wouldn’t have to use taxpayers’ money”
There is talk about how the sale and purchase could be illegal and it has enraged the Chinese central government. Liu Weimin (Chinese foreign ministry spokesman) told reporters
“Some Japanese politicians have been making petty moves to try to make trouble, but their actions will not alter the fact that these islands belong to China,
The oil and gas fields are the biggest reason these islands are so coveted The fact remains that Japan has a very limited supply natural resources. Energy resources account for 14% of its total imports and 60% of its oil is imported from the Persian Gulf.
Another reason both countries refuse to back down is the frosty relationship the countries share. Japan and China are like siblings that refuse to speak. A 2012 survey showed that almost 85% of Japanese people had a negative view of “selfish” China and 65% of Chinese had unfavourable views on “nationalistic” Japan.