In Japan, August brings o-Bon, the Festival of the Dead, when — per Buddhist tradition — the souls of ancestors come back to visit the living. During this four- to five-day period starting Aug. 12, special lanterns are set out in front of houses to assist the navigation of the deceased back to their ancestral homes. Offerings of rice and sake are placed in front of the family butsudan (shrine) and the grave sites are ritually cleaned.
At the beginning and end of the Bon period Japan’s thoroughfares are clogged with train, car and air traffic as people journey back to their hometowns to visit Grandma and Grandpa in their country home, and to take part in the Bon traditions. They’ll participate in the local Bon dance, visit graves of the ancestors and take time to hobnob with relatives they haven’t seen since the previous summer. Despite it being a celebration of the dead, the atmosphere is quite convivial as returnees catch up with old friends and relatives while remembering the deceased — and even enjoy a few rounds of sake with them.
But o-Bon hasn’t always been this way. It used to be that the families all lived and worked nearby and only the dead ancestors made the journey back. Nowadays, so many people have left the countryside for the cities that the living journey back at o-Bon too, following the pattern of the departed.
Returning to the countryside for o-Bon is a nostalgic trip for city dwellers. It reminds them of a time when most people lived in the countryside, sustained their families with rice and vegetable farming and — as is the case on islands like where I live in the Seto Inland Sea — fishing. The countryside is symbolic of a time before the big cities were the only places to find work and before Bon dances became National Intangible Cultural Treasures. It was a time when most Japanese people had livelihoods just like those still pursued here on our small island of 549 people.
What you may not realize is that o-Bon is big business here on the island. So many relatives come back to visit, it is said that the island sinks under the weight. And the return of so many people has created its own industry. The minshuku (guesthouses) and ryokan (inns) are full as family members from all over Japan flock back to island homes overflowing with relatives but without enough futons. Many such homes are occupied only during the Bon period and are maintained expressly for this purpose.
The local grocery store can hardly keep up with demand for staples such as rice and miso as shelves are emptied as soon as they’re stocked. The beach is crowded with people beating the oppressive August heat. Seaside shacks pop up out of nowhere to sell shaved ice and rent inflatable toys to bored children who are still too young to understand the meaning of o-Bon. Parents rent rowboats by the hour and pay ¥300 for beach-side showers behind concrete blocks.
Evenings are spent amongst family, eating home-cooked meals and drinking the local brew, while a few alumni who went to elementary school together may escape to share memories over a cocktail at a beach bar under the stars. This has been the o-Bon I’ve known for the past 18 years living on Shiraishi Island.
But o-Bon won’t always be this way. I was taking a short cut through the cemetery the other day, as I am inclined to do, because the views of the Seto Inland Sea are panoramic from the graveyard that sits on top of the hill. I’ve always thought this would be a truly idyllic place to rest in peace, so I was surprised to run into some dead people leaving the island. A large truck was waiting at the bottom of the hill and a small Traxcavator had limped up the wide cement steps to the top. There, the machine’s crane was lifting gravestones out of their plot.
Positioned as the machine was in the middle of the path, I could barely get past anyway, so I stopped and observed these modern-day gravediggers.
“Where are you taking the Nakagawas to?” I asked, referring to the name I read on the gravestone.
This worker who had stopped to take a break seemed happy enough to share a chat with his admirer.
“To Osaka,” he said. “The family all resides in Osaka now.”
He explained that it is becoming more common these days to move graves to where the family has gone to, and that his company has several similar projects underway on the islands. It’s more convenient to worship the dead when they’re close, and this way, the entire family doesn’t have to make the long trip back to their hometown. Since people are cremated in Japan, it’s only the contents of the urn that need to be transferred.
So now, in another ironic turn, the dead are pursuing the living! And one less family will come back to Shiraishi Island at o-Bon.
“What will you do with the gravestones?” I asked.
“We just get rid of them,” he said.
Well, I hope the families at least take the lanterns with them to help the spirits navigate the path to the new house.
Many Westerners feel that o-Bon is a beautiful tradition, one that transcends the amount of respect for ancestors we are accustomed to. It’s admirable that the Japanese have chosen to adapt their traditions rather than abandoning them even in these modern times.
For the countryside, however, it is a shame. Without people returning to their hometowns, the contacts with their past, their family history and even nature itself are severed.
What will happen to these places when people stop coming back and businesses or services are no longer needed? At a time when Japan is trying to revitalize the countryside, the dead are literally rolling over in their graves.
Two weeks later, another grave was removed from our cemetery.
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