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Home > Media Reiews > News Review Last Updated: 14:52 03/09/2007
News Review #56: August 13, 2002

Full trains, traffic jams at start of Bon

Reviewed By Hitoshi URABE

"Full trains, traffic jams at start of Bon"
The Japan Times


Three times a year, for about a week each, Japan's bustling cities quiet down. Business activities slow down almost to a halt and shops and restaurants are closed as people normally filling the streets go away.

The first is the New Years, when the government offices close down for about a week and most of the businesses follow suit, and even the banks are closed for several days. People head for their hometowns to spend the New Years with their families and relatives.

Then there is the "Golden Week" which is literally so called in Japan, though with a touch of Japanese accent. It occurs in end of April to beginning of May, when four national holidays are packed in the span of eight-day. Combined with the rule that the Monday following a holiday Sunday will also be considered a holiday, there would normally be only one or two working days during the period. It is also the most pleasant season, so people head for the country to enjoy the air.

This week, in the middle of August, is one of such occasions, called "bon", "o-bon", or "ura-bon'e" in Japanese. For the sake of making it easier to understand its nature, it is dubbed as "the Bon Festival" in English.

The Bon Festival is held to pray for the repose of the souls of one's ancestors. In the old days, it was held in the middle of the seventh month on Japan's traditional calendar. Some regions therefore still celebrate Bon in mid-July, but because the actual timing was closer to mid-August on the present calendar, many have shifted the dates of the festivities a month, to mid-August.

Deceased family members are believed to revisit the homestead during Bon to be reunited with their family. To guide the souls back, a small bonfire is lit outside the house. This is called the mukae-bi, or welcoming flame, and when Bon ends, the spirits are sent off with another bonfire, called okuri-bi. Buddhists tend to claim that Bon is their tradition, but recently many historians think that indigenous Japanese practices were merged with Buddhist ideas to shape today's Bon festivity.

It was already a custom in the Tokugawa Era, more than a hundred fifty years ago, when live-in workers at large merchants in the cities, most of them from the countryside, were allowed for a few days off in the New Years and Bon to rejoin their families. The tradition prevails, and many companies offer their workers time off by closing their factories and offices during Bon. As mid-August comes during summer vacation for schools and the kids are craving for ventures, urban residents head for their hometowns forming massive flocks of people on the move, resulting in traffic jams and packed trains, as reported in the article.

Looking at it from a different perspective, the huge migration could be recognized as one of those phenomena to accentuate Japan and its summer, of the intense heat and humidity, the sultry weather under the scorching sun.

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