Obon お盆

Obon during the late Edo period.

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.

Renowned  his ability to mind read and converse with ghosts and gods.

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.

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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.

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10,000 yen

Our third and final PEOPLE OF MONEY post.

The biggest and *my personal favourite* bill, the 10,000 yen bill features Japan’s Voltaire/Benjamin Franklin; Yukichi Fukuzawa.

Born into a poor samurai family in 1835 he started classical training from the age of 5. This was during a time when Japan was still a closed island nation. He was among the members of the first diplomatic visit to the United States in 1859 and upon his return he decided to write the first English-Japanese dictionary.
He was a integral figure during the westernization of Japanese society. He also founded Keio University, the oldest institute of higher education in Japan.

 

Fukuzawa has been on the 10,000 yen note since 1984. He was the only figure to remain after the 2004 change of series.

5000 yen

Continuing our PEOPLE OF MONEY theme lets take a looksie at the lady who graces the 5000 yen bill, Ichiyō Higuchi

Born in Meiji era Tokyo, she became the head of her household at 17 after her father died. She lived and wrote in the Yoshiwara, The historical red light district of Tokyo.

To support her family she took to writing novels. Higuchi’s major works were Ōtsugomori (大つごもり, “The New Year’s Eve”), Takekurabe (たけくらべ, “Child’s Play”), Nigorie (にごりえ, “Troubled Waters”) and Jūsan’ya (十三夜, The Thirteenth Night) all published to critical and popular success. Her novels highlighted the ups and downs of life in Japan’s class system. The period in which she was born was a time of great social and political upheaval in Japan during which the old feudal system was replaced.

Her career was cut short when she contracted and died of tuberculosis at 24. In spite of her limited output, Higuchi is remembered for the quality of her works and is considered to be the first professional female writer in modern Japanese literature. Women during the nineteenth century struggled to receive or continue an education. Higuchi succeeded, as a woman, in receiving a classical education and creating literary works that became popular and critical successes for Meiji literature.

She has been on the 5000 yen note since 2004, only the third female figure to have the honour.