Bon Toro (A Lantern-Shaped Decoration) (盆燈籠)
"Bon toro" (also called "bon doro," written as "盆燈籠" in Japanese) is a lantern-shaped decoration, which is dedicated to the dead at a grave during the season of "Obon" (an annual festival of the dead) in Japan. It is also written as "盆灯ろう" or "盆灯篭" in Japanese. The dedication has been a characteristic custom of the western area of Hiroshima Prefecture (once called Aki Province), and it has also been a custom in the west-central part of Kagawa Prefecture.
The custom is said to have been diffused by believers of the Hongan-ji school of "Jodo Shinshu" (True Pure Land Sect of Buddhism) in Aki Province. The custom came to stay among the public in the castle town Hiroshima in the Edo period, and so, in and around today's Hiroshima City, some temples other than Jodo Shinshu also allow the dedication, but other temples, such as those of "Nichirenshu" (Nichiren Sect of Buddhism), rarely allow it.
The function of bon toro is similar to that of "sotoba" (a pagoda-shaped wooden tablet set up by a tomb, on which phrases from a sutra or the like are written for the repose of the dead's soul), and bon toro is set up around the grave by the visitor during the season of Obon. The relatives of the dead each bring bon toro to the grave, and so, it is often seen that many bon toro are stood around a tomb. Therefore, the dedicator's name is commonly written on a paper of bon toro, in the manner of "jo from -- " ("jo" is the abbreviation of the Japanese word "kenjo," which means "dedication"). When the season of Obon passes, the temple removes bon toro and burns them up.
A bamboo framework in the shape of a hexagonal pyramid like a morning glory is attached to one end of a bamboo bar, and colored papers, such as red, blue and yellow, are pasted on the sidepieces of the hexagonal pyramid. Occasionally, gold dust is sprinkled on the surface of papers. To let the wind and the raindrops through, one sidepiece of the hexagonal pyramid is covered only on its top side. In addition, decorations, such as a golden paper, are attached to the base of the hexagonal pyramid. This is just a lantern-shaped decoration, and in reality is not suitable for the use of lighting. In the past, however, a piece of Japanese eggplant, into which a wick was stuck, was set inside the hexagonal pyramid for lighting a candle, or a small amount of sand was put into the pyramid for supporting a candle.
Incidentally, on "hatsu-bon" (the first obon after death), colored papers and decorations are avoided, and the bon doro is covered only with white papers.
A bon toro costs approximately \600 to \1000 per rod, not very expensive.
The origin of bon toro is unclear. It is traditionally said that a couple, running a paper store in Hacchobori of Kamiya-cho near Hiroshima Castle in the Edo period, mourned the loss of their daughter and dedicated their handmade toro (or flowers) to her.
Incidentally, 'the concise encyclopedia of Buddhist rituals,' issued by the Aki (Hiroshima) diocese branch of Hongan-ji school, says as follows:
"Bon toro seems to have originated from the story of a father living near Hiroshima Castle in the Edo period, who lost his daughter." "He wanted to set up a stone lantern for his daughter, but he did not have money." "So instead, he pared several bamboo pieces, pasted papers to a framework made from the pieces, and dedicated it to her grave, and this was the beginning of the custom." "Today, this custom makes the people living in Aki (Hiroshima) area feel the coming of summer."
Transitions of bon toro in Hiroshima area
From the later Edo period to the Meiji period, the custom became fairly common mainly at temples that were situated in the urban area of Hiroshima City. In Hiroshima City, stalls began selling bon toro at a night fair in the Taisho period. Bon toro sellers are said to have engaged in another job usually and have switched their work to the sale of bon toro just before the season of Obon. Bon toro at that time was commonly covered with the white paper regardless of the death year. It was only after 1965 that the white paper one began to be used just for hatsu-bon.
During World War Ⅱ, the custom was completely restrained for the reasons of air defense and shortage of paper, but it made an early comeback in the wake of the war. From around the 1960's, it became gorgeous as the economy grew rapidly. Before long, the local newspaper (the Chugoku Shimbun) and TV news began to use bon toro as a seasonal news item every August, with a caption such as, 'Production of bon toro at peak,' and it became easy for the residents in Hiroshima to buy bon toro at a local supermarket or a flower shop. With these phenomena seen, bon toro became widely recognized as 'a summer custom in Hiroshima', regardless of the sect. Many temples, including those of the Shingon Sect and the Hokke Sect that had no relation to bon toro at all, could not help allowing the visitors to bring bon toro, because the visitors brought their bon toro to graves quite casually.
From around the middle of the 1970's, some temples began to forbid bon toro, because some toro became too luxurious, and because fires - cases of arson and accidental fires - occurred one after another. Aside from these phenomena, it is a heavy burden for a temple to keep a large number of bon toro, to take fire prevention measures about them, and to clean them up. Additionally, some eco-campaigners say it is a waste of resources to stand bon toro for only several days and then throw them away. And so, temples - especially in urban areas - increasingly come to forbid bon toro. But still, many colorful bon toro are seen in the suburbs today.
Some of the temples which forbid - or want visitors' self-restraint for - bon toro provide the visitors with the space to offer sotoba. But originally, Jodo Shinshu is not a sect that sets a special decoration - or holds a special ritual - even in the season of Obon, and so, the believers generally do not set up sotoba. In Jodo Shinshu, there is no "mukaebi" (ritual to light a fire for welcoming souls of ancestors), no "okuribi" (ritual to light a fire for sending off souls of ancestors), and no "shoryodana" (ancestral tablet placed on a shelf and altarage in the Bon festival). In Jodo Shinshu, the offerings are said to be dedicated to Amitabha Tathagata, not to the souls of ancestors. Therefore, - as of 2009, at least - the only thing that Hiroshima residents dedicate in common to the dead is bon toro.
The spots where bon toro are distributed are seen in the form of concentric circles, centering on the downtown of Hiroshima City.
The areas which bon toro can surely be said to have taken root are, in the east, Kure City and around Higashi Hiroshima City; in the north, Asakita Ward of Hiroshima City and around Kitahiroshima-cho; in the west, Hatsukaichi City and Otake City, and in the south, Etajima City on Etajima Island in Hiroshima Bay and islands in the Sea of Aki.
Even in the outskirts this custom is well-known, so Mihara City, Onomichi City, and Fukuyama City - all situated in the prefectural eastern area (once called Bingo Province) - have quite a few temples and spots that preserve the custom. The situation is similar in Miyoshi City and Shobara City (both in the north of Hiroshima Prefecture), and even in Shimane Prefecture. Meanwhile, the custom is not implemented in Yamaguchi Prefecture, except for Iwakuni City, which is situated on the eastern edge of Yamaguchi Prefecture and is included in the Hiroshima urban area. In Ehime Prefecture, which is closely linked with Hiroshima Prefecture, the custom is not implemented, either.
In Kagawa Prefecture, the custom of dedicating bon toro is seen in the west-central part, such as Sakaide City. The bon toro in this part (once called Sanuki Province) has a complex structure, so it is expensive (more than 10-odd thousand yen per rod).