MISAWA, Japan — Depending on where they reside, Americans living in Japan may observe the following this weekend and early next week: bonfires in front of homes, revelers clad in yukata (summer kimono) dancing to folk music, or clogged highways, airports and trains.

Sunday begins Obon, an event steeped in Buddhist tradition and one of Japan’s three major holidays, along with New Year’s and Golden Week. During the four-day Obon period, many Japanese believe they’re visited by their ancestors’ spirits, which they honor with dances, food offerings, graveside pilgrimages and celebratory prayers.

Customs vary by region and even from city to country. In rural areas such as northern Japan’s Aomori prefecture, families may light bonfires in their yards to guide spirits home, while in cities small porch fires might be lighted or lanterns hung in front of homes. Altars with food offerings are another form of ancestral welcoming.

According to folklorist Barre Toelken, Obon “certainly focuses on the idea of responsibility to departed parents, the ‘debt that can never be repaid.’”

In Japan, it’s assumed that family ties persist beyond the grave, Toelken wrote in 1994 in “The World & I” (, and that a person’s spirit remains closely involved with events at home. “If the proper memorials and celebrations are observed by the living family, the spirit slowly evolves into a local deity, called a sorei or kami, and responds to the petitions of the living by exercising concern for their fortunes,” from easing childbirth to assuring the fertility of crops, Toelken wrote.

At the end of Obon, spirits are guided back to the grave by “send-off” fires or floating lanterns.

Many regions stage festivals with evening dances, food booths and lively music.

Starting Saturday, according to Japanese transportation officials, roads, trains and airports will be busy with families visiting their ancestral homes in Japan and those traveling domestically and abroad for vacation.

On the Kanto Plain, outbound highway traffic is expected to peak Saturday and again on Monday and Tuesday, inbound, according to a Japan Road Traffic Information Center spokesman. But traffic congestion during Obon is not as bad as it once was, the spokesman added, since “rather than taking vacation at the same time, people are taking vacation scattered throughout July and August.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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