See Japan’s Beautiful Festival of the Dead

Families across Japan return home once a year to honor their deceased ancestors.

Every summer, the sleepy fishing village of Himeshima welcomes the dead home.

Observed throughout Japan, the annual Obon festival marks the return of deceased ancestors to Earth. Beliefs about the bonds between the living and dead are rooted in antiquity, but most scholars agree the celebration is based on the Buddhist sutra Urabon-kyō.

According to the scripture, one of Buddha’s disciples found his mother dwelling in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, where spirits suffer insatiable hunger and thirst in the afterlife. When he went to her with a bowl of rice, it turned to flame. The Buddha instructed him to set out food and drink for his deceased parents, and to present the monks with offerings on the 15th day of the seventh moon—this expression of gratitude and respect, he said, would free them from their infernal torments.

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A women prays in a Buddhist cemetery in Ōita Prefecture days after the Obon festival.

True to the sutra, families throughout Japan return to their natal homes from August 13 to 15 (July in some regions) to perform a series of rituals and celebrations—both to honor the dead, and liberate disquiet spirits, like hungry ghosts, from their suffering.

The three-day celebration traditionally begins with mukaebi, the lighting of fires and lanterns to guide spirits home. While local celebrations vary from region to region, most families erect two shōryō-dana, altars of fruit, incense, and flowers—one for their own ancestors, and a second for any spirits who have not attained peace. Other common rituals include ohakamairi, cleaning and decorating ancestral tombs, prayer services at temples, and preparing special meals.

Bon Odori, a region-specific, community folk dance, is a hallmark of the festival. The movements are simple so everyone can participate regardless of skill. Dancers, costumed and painted as popular folklore characters, form a circle around an elevated stage where musicians and taiko drummers perform. The final night of Obon comes full circle with okuribi, the lighting of bonfires and floating lanterns to bid the spirits farewell.

The earliest records of Obon appear during the Asuka period, but it was likely popularized in the 12th century with the growth of Buddhism. Today, Obon is observed by Japanese communities around the world.

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Children dressed and painted as “drunk fishermen” pose for a portrait.

Emilio Espejel is a Mexican photojournalist based in Mexico City. Follow him on Instagram @emilio_espejel.