Every year, my family goes to the Buddhist Temple in Nuuanu, for this thing called Obon, which is in July. So, the Japanese belief is that during this period, which is around a week, the Obon season, Japanese people believe that the spirits of their ancestors are walking the earth. We have services at the Buddhist Temple. We burn incense, pray to all members of our family that are deceased. The monks chant a Sutra to Amitabha Buddha (from the Pure Land school of Buddhism). There are also Obon dances that the temples sponsor; different temples hold the dances at different times. There is traditional Japanese music, and people will dance, its very strict and there are concentric circles of people. Theres a certain pattern to the dance, you just learn the pattern and go in and do it. For one dance, theres a big festival, with food tents and everything, things that are basically sponsored by the temples. There are also lanterns that are supposed to guide the dead, help them find their way back.
Matt told me that the purpose of the Obon season was to pay respect to the relatives that have passed away. He goes to the temples for the services, out of respect for his family and deceased family members like his grandfather. He said that his grandfather died before he was born and that his family has been taking part in the Obon season since before he was born. He also said that he doesnt know if he would continue to take part in the Obon season since its a lot to coordinate, getting the family together. He said that he knows about everything involved with the Obon season and knows what is supposed to be done, but doesnt exactly know what every part means.
I agree with Matts analysis of the Obon season, since it is the commonly accepted reasoning behind the festival. There doesnt seem to be any alternate meanings or purposes for the festival, but from the way Matt described it as being widespread and at various different locations, it might have also become a cultural event for people who arent Buddhist or Japanese. He said there are dances all over the place and some dances have food tents and things like that, so the Obon season or at least the dance part of the Obon season probably has attracted more than just people who are there to pay their respects to their relatives.
Annotation: This festival is cited in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin which is a newspaper in Honolulu.
Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Dancing for The Dead. 29 May, 2004.