Seimei, it’s like Obon on Steroids

April 13th, 2009By Category: Culture, Travel

seimeiThe people of Okinawa don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter or many of the religious holidays many westerners are familiar with. But they do have plenty of their own special holidays and traditions to speak of.

They even have one or two that are not celebrated elsewhere in Japan. One holiday in particular that is celebrated throughout the month of April is called Seimei. Pronounced “She Me” in the local dialect, it’s a gathering of all the family that is rich with ritual and tradition that goes back for hundreds of years.

Of all the rituals associated with Seimei, perhaps the one that is most important and seems the strangest to westerners is where the clan gathers to celebrate. This picnic like gathering seems for the most part to be normal enough except for its location. You need only remember that it’s a time of family and remembrance to bring a sense of normality to it.

In Japan, the family is very high in order of importance. In Okinawa, it’s first and foremost. That is why a picnic like celebration at the family crypt is suddenly not so strange or out of the ordinary. The practice goes back to Taoist traditions imported from China centuries ago. A lot of preparations go into holding a successful celebration. Because these day’s families are further extended geographically than in times past and because attendance is practically mandatory, some creative scheduling has to be done to insure that everyone can attend. Also, traditional foods must be prepared as well as the offerings to the ancestors.

On the day of the big event and everyone arrives at the family crypt, the area must be cleaned of weeds and debris. The offerings are arranged before the altar and incense is burned. The incense used is a special kind that consists of three individual sticks that are fused together. One stick of three is burned for every living member of the household to include those related by marriage. Lastly, paper representing money is burned and offered to the ancestors. I guess that’s because they don’t take credit cards in heaven. After all the offerings are made to the ancestors and the incense is finally burned away, the family begins to feast.

Traditional foods such as tempura, gobo root, daikon radish Kamabokko (fish cake) and San-mai-nikku (pork belly) are consumed. For dessert, mochi is on the menu. The whole ceremony lasts only an hour or two. Add a few adult libations and the traditional swapping of lies and it can go on all afternoon. Afterward, most folks will usually adjourn to the head of the clan’s home where the feasting and fellowship will continue well into the evening hours.

Add a little more beer or sake and it may go on through to the next morning. That’s all well and good provided you don’t have to work the next day. But in Okinawa, allowances are made for this because Seimei is such an important part of the culture.

Author of this article

Keith Graff

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