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Obon: Time for Family Gatherings in Commemoration of Ancestors

It is summer time, and Obon is just round the corner. Obon, generally observed from August 13th through 16th, is a Buddhist festival to commemorate the souls of one's ancestors.

Today, Obon has turned into a summer holiday season as most businesses are closed during the period: a great number of people travel back to their hometowns to visit their family graves, while some others take domestic or international trips. Though some people avoid traveling in this high-season and choose to stay home, it is still a joyful period since a series of local summer events, such as fireworks and Bon-odori (Bon dance) festivals, are held around this time.

Our family, like many others, plans to pay a visit to our parents who are eagerly waiting to see their grandchildren. While we enjoy our family reunion, I have a special plan to make this year's homecoming visit even more meaningful; that is, keeping the record of my parents' lifetime stories for themselves, myself, my son, and the next generation altogether.

I have decided to do this as I was inspired by a book "Things You Must Ask Your Parents Now" (Ima, oya-ni kiite-okubeki-koto) under the editorship of Chizuko Ueno, a renowned Japanese feminist scholar. (The book is published in May 2005, and available only in Japanese.) The book is not about gender issues, however; it is a book to help readers with aging parents to get to know their fathers and/or mothers as individuals and to gain a deeper understanding of themselves. Then, toward the end of the book, the readers are guided to prepare for the day their parents will be gone.

The book is practical, giving me suggestions for a range of step-by-step questions to parents (or a parent). These questions cover largely four areas: 1) learning about my parents beginning from their birth to adulthood (e.g., birthplaces and their environments, their main caregivers, favorite songs during childhood, memorable friends and teachers in schooldays, the romances during adolescence, the occupation that they wanted to be), 2) hearing about their war experiences and thinking about peace (e.g., how they spent day-to-day during the war, if they had lost some friends or relatives, their memories about the life after the war) 3) Rediscovering myself through parents (e.g., how my parents felt when I was born, what type of person they wanted me to be at my early days, what they thought of my academic and career choices in retrospect, my medical history of childhood that I should be aware of, things that my parents did for me at each turning point of my life, such as college entrance, marriage), 4) Learning about the parents' vision for the future, and preparing for their contingency situation (e.g., things they want me to keep/throw away, several questions about their properties and financial issues, the type of funeral they want to have).

Skimming through these questions, I realize how little that I know of my parents (as well as myself), in spite of our intimate and open relationships. Then, I am grateful that I encountered this book. Firstly, since my parents are still in good condition (both are around 70 years old), I can take a proactive role in keeping a record of their vivid recollections of life experiences, including those of war time, and pass them onto my son as a special piece of Japanese history. Secondly, by hearing about their memories of parenting and my childhood, I can have a better understanding of myself and reflect the lessons in my own parenting. Finally, I can start preparing myself in due course for my parents' life passages.

As Japan becomes the world's most aging society with fewer children**, and as the number of nuclear families increases, Obon becomes a most precious time for family gatherings, especially for those elderly people who get to see their children. While the family reunions have a great value in themselves, making some time to listen to episodes from a parent's life and contemplating the wonders of life and death and those of the parent-child relationship may be another way of paying reverence to ancestors and fostering the family heritage for years to come.

*Obon takes place, by and large, in mid-August; but it is celebrated in mid-July in some areas.
*According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications of Japan, Japan has become the world's most aging society with the fewest children in terms of population composition (21.0% is 65 years old and above, 13.6% is under 15 years old, as of 2005).
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