• Emily Pan

Obon Festival: An Oral History

This is a summary of the Obon Festival that took place on July 31, 1965 at the San Luis Obispo Veterans' Memorial Hall. Obon is an ancient Buddhist religious ceremony that dates back to 550 BC. The Obon Service precedes the Obon Festival as it lasts from July 15 to the climax of the festival on July 31 and is a Buddhist memorial service to honor loved ones who are no longer with them. It is a time of religious devotion, cultural appreciation, and dancing, and it is described as being the American celebration of Mother's Day and Father's Day packed into one, but celebrating individuals across seven generations. Obon teaches that deliverance is only achieved through the vows of the Buddha and it is a time to show honor and reverence to the loved ones who have passed away, as well as a time to express gratitude and thanks to both the living and the dead. In San Luis Obispo of 1965, the Obon Service was held at the San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple and Reverend Lewern Staky from the Stockton Buddhist Church spoke about the Obon suffering of joy. After the service, cemetery graves are cleaned and fresh flowers and incense are placed to honor the departed.

Four Japanese Girls at Grave

Legend says that the Obon Festival originated from a scripture compiled by the Buddha in 500 BC and tells the story of Mogalona, one of the Buddha's high disciples. Mogalona is said to have passed away and suffered greatly, but with the aid of his fellow disciples, he rises out of hell and his companions celebrate with happiness and joy. That was the beginning of the Obon Service and the festival that follows, which usually encompasses a teriyaki chicken dinner, colorful folk dancing and a prize drawing.


Below are some highlights from the Obon exhibit described in the oral history. Please view the attached PDF for a complete introduction.

  • One type of flower arrangement is the Areka which is composed of pine trees, Tiger lilies, and roses.

  • One type of doll is called a Casa Oldery and they are used as a casa which is worn above the head. She also has a string of them in her hand to dance with.

  • Another doll is called a Shezocogozia which is a replica of the wife of Lord Ushietzanamenota, a famous shogo of ancient Japan.

  • The Kizeuza is a formal table setting used to entertain special guests.

  • Kakeware and Kutoneware tea cups are considered to be very valuable in Japan. Likewise, red lacquer of value and food is typically served directly out of a red lacquer serving bowl.

  • Regarding Japanese bridal sets, the Witchekaka is a cloak made of gold or silver embroidery to be worn over the kimono dress which was usually light pink embroidered with gold and a bird called the wholnotrove, or bird of paradise.

  • The futa (brush), soone, and suzide (ink) was the Japanese writing set.

  • In Japanese households, Kakemonos, or fancy calligraphy scrolls, are treasured and often kept for generations.

  • On May 5, which is "boy's day," in Japanese households, carps are flown on a large pole and it is used to display there is a boy in the household, or a boy celebrating their first "boy's day". The carp is a symbol of courage and the parents fly the carp in hopes that their son will be courageous.

  • The traditional Obon dance is the bogy body dance.

Works Cited

Obon Festival, oral history transcript on master tape #11, Interviewer: Lillian Wadhams. History Center of San Luis Obispo County, 31 July 1965.

Image Source

Four Japanese girls at grave, 1960 ca., photograph, People & Portraits, 2002.010.052, History Center of San Luis Obispo County, https://historycenterslo.pastperfectonline.com/photo/C1677B24-5173-49A9-9AA6-327397834510.


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