Japan’s culture and heritage is heavily intertwined with its Zen Buddhism and polytheistic religious beliefs. When it comes to gods or deities, Japan has an awful lot of them. In Japan, there is a god for everything, even the littlest of things. This means festivals in veneration of these deities are also high in number in Japan. Every month, there is a major festival or two that the whole country celebrates and recognises. In this article we will have a look at two of such festivals celebrated in Japan in the month of July.

Tanabata festival

Tanabata is celebrated every year on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is a traditional festival that has been celebrated for centuries. Also known as the star festival, Tanabata is a celebration of two lovers’ annual meeting.

According to Japanese folk beliefs, the stars Vega and Altair represents the deities Shokujo and Kengyu (also known as Orihime and Hikoboshi), respectively. Orihime was a weaver who longed for a lover and seeing her woes her father Tentei arranged her to meet Hikoboshi who was a shepherd boy. The two instantly fell in love and soon got married. They were so in love that both of them forgot their duties; Orihime stopped weawing and Hikoboshi let the cows wander all around the Milky Way. Angered by their negligence Tentei separated the two and forbade them from meeting except for one day in a year. Tanabata is celebrated on that particular day when the two lovers meet.

On the day the Japanese girls dress themselves in traditional kimono and wish to be talented in handicrafts just like Orihime. Celebrations also include cows and horses made out of eggplants, corns, and cucumbers with broken chopsticks for the limbs. These toy cows and horses are then laced under bamboo trees in the garden.

Moreover, the Japanese wake up early on the day of celebrations and collect dew gathered on the leaves of bamboo trees. The dew collected is then mixed with ink which is then used to draw and write poems related to stories about deities on strips of paper. These papers usually take five different colours and once the poems are written on them the papers are hung on the branches of a bamboo tree. If the garden doesn’t have a bamboo tree a bamboo branch is erected in the garden just for the celebrations.

Just like many other festivals celebrated in Japan, apart from the customs, the celebrations of Tanabata also include public gatherings with lots of food stalls and carnival games. Customs of Tanabata celebrations vary from region to region, and Sendai is known to celebrate Tanabata in a grand scale. Hiratsuka, Kanagawa, and Tokyo also hold large-scale Tanabata celebrations while Sao Paolo in Brazil and Los Angeles in California, USA also hold annual Tanabata celebrations. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea also hold annual Tanabata parades with Micky Mouse dressed as Hikoboshi and Minnie Mouse dressed as Orihime.

Ullambana festival

Also known as Obon, Ullambana is the Japanese version of the ‘festival of the dead’ which is celebrated in many other parts of the world. Veneration of the dead has deep roots in Japanese culture. It is believed that the ancient ancestors of Japan started the veneration of the dead which over time, has evolved into Ullambana. Despite the beliefs surrounding Ullambana not necessarily supporting Buddhist beliefs, a large majority of Buddhists in Japan take part in Ullambana, mainly for its cultural importance. It is also considered as one of the main festivals of Shinto religion.

The Japanese believe that the spirits of the dead family members return home during Ullambana days. So, to welcome them back, they prepare alters with the favourite foods of the dead family members, In Buddhist households these alters are called ‘Butusdan’ while in the Shinto households they are called ‘Kamidan’. In some households a member of clergy is invited to the house to bless the dead and the surviving family. The cemeteries as well as the gardens and the entrances to the houses are decorated with lanterns. This is done to guide the spirits back home and to allow them to see the road clearly.

As an effort to please the dead the Japanese perform Bon Odori or Bon dances. These dances differ from region to region and also, the music, songs, and other instruments used in the dance differ according to the region. While there are traditional songs to which the dance is performed, these days, even modern enka (a popular Japanese music genre) hits as well as children’s songs are also used in Bon dances.

The festival comes to an end with the dead returning to their graves or the spirit world. In order for them to see the way back clearly, the Japanese light large bonfires. In some areas small floats with lams on them are floated on streams and rivers as a way of guiding the dead back to the spirit world.   

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera