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The Ghosts of Okinawa

By J. D. Haines

Do you believe in ghosts? Nearly every culture has superstitions about the dead, and Okinawa, Japan, is no exception. The Okinawan culture, with its Chinese and Japanese influences, is very respectful toward the dead. Each summer, in late July or early August, according to the lunar cycle, Okinawans celebrate Obon, the Festival of the Dead. Obon is a Buddhist custom honoring the departed spirits of one’s ancestors. It has come to be a family reunion holiday, when people return to ancestral family homes and visit and clean ancestors’ graves. Many Okinawans believe that after people die,they exist in a spiritworld, where they can exert powerful influences over the living. Obon is a three-day festival that begins with Unke, which means welcoming day. On the evening of the first day, families hang lanterns outside or place candles along exterior paths to guide the spirits back home. They also open the doors to the house to allow the spirits to enter. Bowls of water are placed at the entrance so spirits can wash their feet after their long journey. The butsu- dan, a family altar containing wooden plaques with the names of ancestors, is adorned with candles, flowers, and offerngs to the spirits. The second day, Nakanohi (middle day), involves praying to the ancestors at the butsadan. The third day, Kui, serves to escort the spirits back to their world. Lavish farewell dinners are prepared, incense is lit, and prayers are offered asking for protection and forgiveness of any perceived neglect. Some families throw adanomi (a fruit of adan tree) out the door to signal the ancestors it is time to leave. Others burn paper spirit money (Uchikabi) so the ancestors have no needs on their return to the spirit world. When I lived in Okinawa from 2005 to 2007, I witnessed the celebration of Obon in the streets in front of my home. On the third day of the festival, groups of Eisa drummers and dancers wearing a traditional yukata (light cotton kimono), beat loudly upon their drums and chanted, escorting the spirits back to the realm of the departed. Another evening, I was surprised by an elderly Okinawan woman who appeared at my door to offer her services as a psychic. While I didn’t require her services at the time, she left a business card in case the need might arise.

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