Shunbun-no-hi, the Day People Offer Food to the Departed Souls

The spring starts from today. The morning sun was bright when I woke up at 6 in the morning. When going to bed yesterday, I was prepared to sleep until 9 in the morning, but in the middle, got a phone call from Google (unknown caller), and introduced himself as “David”, who was assigned to assist me to solve the domain registration issues. David told he will call at 7 in the morning. I had to wake up early though today is a national holiday in Japan.

People celebrate the start of the spring season, the name of which in Japanese is Shunbun-no-hi. On Friday, one of my colleagues told he will go to stay with his parents since we have holidays for 3 consecutive days. Shunbun-no-hi was actually yesterday, that is on Sunday, the 20th March (yesterday). When the national holiday falls on Sunday, the holiday will be shifted to the next day. That was the reason we got the 3-day long holiday, which is called Sanrenkyu. The day and night would be equal today. It is surprising that our ancestors possessed the knowledge of celestial movements and watched the nature closely. Shunbun-no-hi is Spring Equinox. The Autumn Equinox will be in September. There would be noticeable differences in weather from today.

While waiting for David’s call, I searched for Shunbun-no-hi. It is believed that the Emperor of Japan enforced the celebration of spring equinox in the eighth century. Shunbun-no-hi is only one day but the tradition is to observe seven days of rituals, three days before and three days after the Shunbun-no-hi. This period is called Haru no higan. Shunbun-no-hi usually falls on March 20 or 21 but could be between 19 and 22. The exact date of Shunbun-no-hi holiday on next year will be decided after the February of the current year.

roots_treeSpring starts after the Shunbun-no-hi and the weather becomes warmer. In other words, this period marks the end of winter season. The tradition of observing the Haru-no-higan originated from Buddhist beliefs. Higan means another world. When the day and night become equal in length, Buddha appears on earth to guide the stray souls to the path of nirvana.

My colleague didn’t know the history of Vernal equinox. When asked, he told, his parents used to offer botamochi (red bean paste covered rice balls) to the ancestors. Ancestors would consume this food and proceed with their journey to the next world. Giving food to the departed souls and helping them to make their way in their eternal journey is a great belief and ritual. We also have a similar custom of offering food to the ancestors. Around this same period, we celebrate Holi, the festival of colors in India. This year’s Holi is on March 24, Thursday.

“Shunbun-no-hi” is written in Japanese as 春分の日. The Kanji can be read as Shun and Haru. This Kanji is used to write “spring”. After attending the call from David, I became curious to know more about Shunbun-no-hi (a thing which never happened in the past 8 years). The Shunbun-no-hi becoming a holiday in Japan was not long ago. It was in 1948 when the United States decided to rewrite the constitution and separate Shinto religious practices from the state affairs.

Years ago, this holiday was known as Higan no Nakaba the translation of which is “Middle of the Equinoctial Week.”  Many people including my colleague might have forgotten the history of Shunbun-no-hi. Many of them know it as a public holiday. For foreigners like me, this day marks the start of spring in Japan. Sakura flowers will start blooming all around and the climate would be pleasant.

Author: Jayaprakash

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