Obon: Ancient Buddhist festival reaches peak numbers in Japan

People drumming in the street with crowds on either side and festival atmosphere

Taiko drummers taking part in an earlier Obon festival in San Jose. Photo by Wilson Lam.

JULY and AUGUST 2017: Obon—a sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes and a celebration of Japanese culture—unfolds around the world from mid-July through mid-August. that began last month reaches peak numbers in August, as the spirit of Obon circles the globe. These traditions represent a mix of Buddhist, Confucian and Japanese cultures honoring the spirits of ancestors. Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

NOTE to American readers about the dates: If you are interested in visiting an Obon-themed festival in your part of the U.S., watch local news media for listings. The peak of the festival is mid-August in Japan—from about August 11-20 this year. However, many American communities host events in July. In Hawaii, for example, the “Obon season” was kicked off with a festival on the first weekend of July. Why such a wide range of dates for this “season”? Because families honoring Obon interpret the calendar in several ways—for example, some families still look back to the ancient Japanese lunar calendar, which varies from the current global calendar. Wikipedia has more about the range of dates.

The term “Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” The purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made.

The sacred Bon Odori dance is at the center of Obon festivities, with teachers performing difficult steps on yagura, elevated stages, and attendees circling the stage as they imitate the dance. Though there is a basic pattern to the dance, details vary by region and culture.

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon are most likely to show up in Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada.

A BUDDHIST STORY

The traditional story behind Obon begins with a disciple of Buddha. When this disciple used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. The disciple mourned his mother’s state, and pleaded to Buddha for a way to free her.

In response to his disciple’s request, Buddha suggested one thing: to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had completed their summer retreat. The disciple did as he had been instructed, and saw his mother freed. In great happiness, the disciple danced with joy—and, thus, the first “Bon dance” was performed. Duly, upon viewing his mother, the disciple had come to a full realization of the many sacrifices his mother had made for him, and he was exceptionally grateful. Even today, the deeper roots of Obon lie in paying respects to ancestors—thus easing their suffering—and expressing joy for the sacrifices that loved ones have made.

On a more personal level, Obon means that families take time to freshly decorate household altars and reunite with family members at ancestral gravesites. Most every Bon festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating of paper lanterns. At the culmination, hundreds and thousands of paper lanterns, illuminated by interior candles, can be seen floating down rivers and streams. The belief is that ancestors’ spirits are symbolically returned to the world of the dead.

One style of Obon lantern in Los Angeles. Photo by Dietmar Rabich, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

WANT MORE?

Cooking up some traditional Japanese Obon cuisine in your kitchen? Check out the recipes at JapaneseFood.about.com.

How does the Japanese Obon differ from the American Obon? This writer gives an inside perspective.

Thinking of crafting a paper lantern? Over the years in covering Obon in our Holidays & Festivals column, we have recommended links to Do-It-Yourself Japanese lanterns. Obviously, readers in other parts of the world, especially in Japan, have kits and traditional materials handy in their homes and neighborhoods. American readers, however, can make a beautiful paper lantern with this dollar-store approach to the craft. What we like about this particular set of instructions is: There’s a helpful video, as well as step-by-step photos and the result is a multi-tiered lantern that impresses us.

Want a different approach to making a lantern? Here’s an alternative set of instructions, written for K-12 teachers.

 

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia

Obon: Japanese communities worldwide begin month-long festival season

People in street clothes dance underneath lanterns with Japanese inscriptions

The Tsukiji Honganji Bon Dance Festival. Photo by Guilhem Vellut, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, JULY 13: Crisp cotton kimonos swirl through the streets, colorful trays of cool and tangy sushi await diners and the music of the Bon dance all announce the arrival of Obon—a centuries-old Japanese festival whose activities span an entire month around the globe. From Tokyo to Las Vegas, Buddhist temples in cities around the world host Obon festivals: vendors offer tantalizing Japanese cuisine, temples fill with visitors and an Asian cultural influence is in full force. Originally a Buddhist-Confucian custom, the Japanese have been visiting ancestors’ graves and honoring the spirits of deceased loved ones during Obon for more than 500 years.

Bondancersize? Yes, it’s a real thing! The Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin (headquarters of Hawai’i’s largest Japanese Buddhist denomination) offers weekly classes on Bon dance; Bondancersize, an enormously popular class geared toward seniors, has been reported as bringing in close to 100 students. (Watch a video of the class on YouTube, filmed less than two months ago.)

The traditional story behind Obon begins with a disciple of Buddha. When this disciple used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. (Obon is shortened from Ullambana, meaning “hanging upside down” and implying much suffering.) The disciple mourned his mother’s state, and pleaded to Buddha for a way to free her.

In response to his disciple’s request, Buddha suggested one thing: to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had completed their summer retreat. The disciple did as he had been instructed, and saw his mother freed. In great happiness, the disciple danced with joy—and, thus, the first “Bon dance” was performed. Duly, upon viewing his mother, the disciple had come to a full realization of the many sacrifices his mother had made for him, and he was exceptionally grateful. Even today, the deeper roots of Obon lie in paying respects to ancestors—thus easing their suffering—and expressing joy for the sacrifices that loved ones have made.

Girl smiles while drumming on large Taiko drum

Taiko drumming is an integral part of many Obon festivals. Above, a girl participates in San Francisco’s Obon festival. Photo by Mark, courtesy of Flickr

Did you know? When the ancient Japanese lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar, the date of Obon spread out: “Shichigatsu Bon” became the modern observance, marked in Tokyo and eastern Japan in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon,” based on the lunar calendar, is celebrated in mid-August. “Old Bon” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

BON DANCES,
TEA CEREMONIES
& FIREWORKS

Whether in Japan, Korea, Argentina or a community of Hawai’i, Obon festivals often span several days and include public Bon dances, tea ceremonies, fireworks and carnivals. Festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in many regions of the United States and Canada. In Hawaii, festivities span an even longer period than they do in Japan: Bon festivals are held June through September, from the Garden Island to the Big Island.

On a more personal level, Obon means that families take time to freshly decorate household altars and reunite with family members at ancestral gravesites. Most every Bon festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating of paper lanterns. At the culmination, hundreds and thousands of paper lanterns, illuminated by interior candles, can be seen floating down rivers and streams. The belief is that ancestors’ spirits are symbolically returned to the world of the dead.

RECIPES, PERSPECTIVES & A PAPER LANTERN DIY

Cooking up some traditional Japanese Obon cuisine in your kitchen? Check out the recipes at JapaneseFood.about.com.

How does the Japanese Obon differ from the American Obon? This writer gives an inside perspective.

Thinking of crafting a paper lantern? Find simple-to-follow instructions for a DIY lantern, here.

 

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia

New Year: Ring in 2016 with global traditions and fresh perspectives

New Year's 2016 greeting

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31 and FRIDAY, JANUARY 1: Happy New Year!

Fireworks, champagne toasts and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest kick off the start of the Gregorian year worldwide, as revelers usher in the year 2016. In several world countries, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day means family gatherings, elaborate meals and plenty of parties. From the United States to Mexico, Ireland and Japan, time-honored traditions meet the latest global trends on New Year’s Eve In New York, celebrities and party-goers watch the famed “ball drop” in Times Square, counting the seconds as the 12,000-pound crystal ball lowers to ground level.

NEW YEAR’S EVE: FROM MEXICO TO KOREA, RUSSIA & NEW YORK

New York at night with lights and confetti for New Year's, crowds

New Year’s Eve in New York’s Times Square. Photo by Anthony Quintano, courtesy of Flickr

For many, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day traditions span centuries. In Mexico, it is tradition to eat one grape with each chime of the clock’s bell at midnight, making a wish with each grape. A special sweetbread is baked for the holiday, and in homes across the country, red, yellow and green decorations are hung, in hopes of luck in the New Year in life, love, work and wealth. In Korea, ancestors are paid tribute at the New Year, and in Canada, the United States and the UK, Polar Bear Plunges have steadily been gaining popularity as a New Year’s Day custom. In Russia, some blini is in order for a proper New Year’s party. Tradition traces the thin pancakes back to ancient Slavs, and today, Russian blini may be stuffed with cheese or served in a variety of other ways. (Find a recipe and more at WallStreetJournal.com.)

From Times Square: Since 1907, the famous New York City “ball drop” has marked New Year’s Eve for millions in Times Square and for billions more through televised broadcasting of the event. Notable televised events began in 1956, with Guy Lombardo and his band broadcasting from the ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. During the tenure of Guy Lombardo, young dick Clark began to broadcast on ABC, and following Lombardo’s death in 1977, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve soon became the hit of the nation. Dick Clark hosted the show for 33 years, and in 2015, Ryan Seacrest will host his 10th show, which is now called Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.

Celebrity lineup: Confirmed for this year is headliner Carrie Underwood, who will be joined by Luke Bryan, Wiz Khalifa and Demi Lovato. One Direction will headline the Billboard Hollywood Party in Los Angeles, and singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett will make a live appearance from his concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. This year, the show will pack 38 performances into more than 5 hours of music, beginning on Thursday, Dec. 31 at 8/7 c on the ABC Television Network. (The show can also be viewed live online.) Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift is set to release the world premiere of her new music video, “Out of the Woods,” during ABC’s telecast.

WATCH NIGHT AND MARY: A CHRISTIAN NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

In some Christian churches, New Year’s Eve is a night of quiet reflection, prayer and thanksgiving. There’s a long-standing Methodist tradition called “Watch Night,” a custom started by Methodism’s founder John Wesley, and some Protestant groups follow similar traditions. In Greece and in Orthodox Christian communities, New Year’s is spent singing Kalanda—carols—and eating the vasilopita, or St. Basil’s, cake. On January 1, the octave of Christmas culminates in the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

SHOGATSU: JAPANESE BUDDHIST SPECTACULAR

Two glasses filled with bubbly champagne against dark background

Photo by Bill Masson, courtesy of Flickr

In Japan, New Year’s preparations begin weeks in advance, with pressed rice cakes prepared in a variety of flavors and often cooked with broth for a traditional New Year’s soup. At midnight on Dec. 31, Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, which is an auspicious number in Buddhist tradition. After midnight, many families head to a local temple to pray, and then feast together afterward. The following morning, New Year’s greetings are exchanged and delicacies like sashimi and sushi are consumed.

PARTY PLANNING: RECIPES, HOSTING TIPS AND COCKTAILS

  • Drink recipes are at Forbes.com and L.A. Times. Looking for a Mocktail? Delicious combinations are available from HGTV.
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Categories: BuddhistChristianFaiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

Obon: Buddhist, Japanese festival reaches peak numbers

Asian girl in kimono and straw hat smiling, lit lanterns and others dancing in background

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

AUGUST 2015: A sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes, and a celebration of Japanese culture that began last month reaches peak numbers in August, as the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors, Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

“Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” The purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made. The sacred Bon Odori dance is at the center of Obon festivities, with teachers performing difficult steps on yagura, elevated stages, and attendees circling the stage as they imitate the dance. Though there is a basic pattern to the dance, specifics vary by region and culture.

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada.

Read the full ReadTheSpirit story on Obon here.

NEWS & UPDATES

Though some international Obon celebrations took place as early as July 1, events are spread over the course of two months—and, in Japan, experts estimate peak travel to be between August 8 and August 16.

Bringing 1.3 million to Shikoku Island: Japan’s largest Bon Odori dance festival takes place on Shikoku Island, where more than 1 million attendees gather in the heat of August for the four-day celebrations. (Read more here.) Each year, this festival takes place Aug. 12-15, offering a myriad of dancers, exhibitions, beating Taiko drums and refreshments ranging from sugared shaved ice to grilled octopus.

WWII veterans return war heirlooms to Japanese families: Seven decades after the end of WWII, seven veterans of WWII visited Japan to return silk flags carried by Japanese soldiers to the owners and their families. Carried as a type of talisman by Japanese servicemen in WWII, the flags were covered with personal messages and wishes from family and friends; American soldiers who took the flags from battlefields have been working with Japanese scholars through OBON 15, a nonprofit organization, to identify the owners of the flags.

San Jose Japantown’s 80th Obon: The Obon festival in San Jose celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, in what is one of the few Japantowns left in the United States. (San Jose Mercury News has the story.) The street festival has remained true to its roots despite growth and popularity, and taiko drumming, kimonos and traditional foods add to the air of reverence surrounding the sacred Bon Odori dance.

A sustainable Obon in California: This year, the Obon at Higashi Honganji offered guests no Styrofoam food containers or plastic bags, reusable water bottles and incentives to bring reusable bags and utensils, in part of a mission to produce zero waste. (Get details here.) Organizers say the efforts remind festival-goers of the mottainai concept: to reduce, reuse, recycle and respect the earth. In addition, wood from old Manto-e lanterns will be recycled and made into naruko, Japanese wooden clappers used during Bon dancing.

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia

Ullambana and Obon: Buddhists, Japanese celebrate summer festival

Dancing Bon women in kimonos with lanterns

Photo by Jshyun, cortesy of Flickr

MONDAY, JULY 13: A sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes, and a celebration of Japanese culture commences; and, today, the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Worldwide, this festival spans an entire month: “Shichigatsu Bon,” celebrated in Eastern Japan, begins in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon” commences in August; “Kyu Bon,” or “Old Bon,” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors—Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. (Wikipedia has details.) Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common at during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

“Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” Bon-Odori—and the Buddhist legend it stems from—recall a disciple of Buddha who used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother. When the disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering, he asked Buddha how he could help her. The disciple made offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat and, soon after, saw his mother released from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. With his new-found insight, the disciple suddenly saw the true nature of his mother—her selflessness, and the sacrifices she had made for him—and with extra joy, he danced what is now the Bon-Odori. (Get a Buddhist perspective here.) A primary purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made.

THE BON ODORI DANCE AND TORO NAGASHI LANTERNS

The official dance of Obon, though it follows a universal pattern, differs in many details by region. Music and steps typically reflect a region’s history, culture and livelihood. In addition, some regions incorporate items such as fans, small towels or wooden clappers into the dance, while others do not. Nonetheless, everyone is welcome to join in the Bon-Odori dance. When the festival draws to a close, paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers, symbolizing the ancestors’ return to the world of the dead (Toro Nagashi). Fireworks often follow.

Red and yellow lit lanterns on string

Photo by Fabian Reus, courtesy of Flickr

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada. In Brazil, street Odori dancing complements the Matsuri dance, and Taiko (drumming) and Shamisen contests are held. Buddhist Churches of America temples host events throughout the United States, and in Hawaii and California, events are abundant.

NEWS: BON DANCES & 2015 TRAVEL

Bon dances worldwide take on the values and culture of their regions, and in Oahu, Hawaii, 2015 will feature a Super Hero Bon Dance; a Buddhist Sangwa ceremony at Hawaii’s Plantation Village; children’s lantern parades; traditional drumming and dancing. (Learn more here.) Though travel is spread out through the month, experts estimate that the peak of Obon travel 2015 will be between August 8 and August 16.

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

Hinamatsuri: Japanese families bring out the dolls in elaborate displays

Hina Matsuri display in Japan

Many Japanese homes display dolls for this special holiday. Some are able to set up a full seven-layer display like this one, photographed by Chris73 and provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

TUESDAY, MARCH 3: Intricately detailed dolls are displayed en masse across Japan and in Japanese communities worldwide, as Hinamatsuri commences.

Known alternatively as “Doll’s Day,” or “Girls’ Day,” Hinamatsuri draws from the custom of doll display that began during the Heian period. When people believed that dolls could contain bad spirits, it was also believed that by floating a doll down a river aboard a simple boat, bad spirits would be carried away, too. Today, few Japanese float dolls out to sea—due to environmental concerns and complaints from fishermen who find dolls tangled in their nets.  Alternatively, the dolls are placed onto boats until after ceremonies are complete, at which time the dolls are recollected and burned in a temple.

THE SEVEN PLATFORMS

Elaborate hina dan, or platforms, used to display Hinamatsuri dolls have seven levels. The top tier holds two imperial dolls—the Emperor and Empress—placed in front of a gold folding screen; the second tier holds three court ladies; the third holds five male musicians. On the fourth platform, two ministers stand on either side of bowl tables; on the fifth tier, samurai are displayed, and on the final two platforms, various furniture pieces, tools and more are placed. When Hinamatsuri is over, dolls are taken down almost immediately, for fears of superstition.

Care to read more? Wikipedia has a detailed overview of the traditions behind these platforms.

While praying for the happiness and health of young girls, families often consume hina-arare, bite-sized crackers, and hishimochi, a diamond-shaped colored rice cake. Sushi rice topped with raw fish and a salt-based soup, ushiojiru, are also commonly eaten on Hinamatsuri. The customary drink is shirozake, a sake made from fermented rice. Though Hinamatsuri is primarily celebrated in Japan, festivities are also held in Hawaii and in select other regions of the world.

IN THE NEWS: HELLO KITTY AND THE KYOTO NATIONAL MUSEUM

This year, a Japanese pastry and confectionery company, Mon Cher, is offering a line of Sanrio-inspired cakes for Hinamatsuri, featuring Hello Kitty and My Melody. (Read more here.) Similarly, many bakeries and food services offer specialty items for Doll’s Day.

At the Kyoto National Museum, an exhibition of historical Hinamatsuri dolls will be back for the first time in six years, as the museum’s new wing has reopened to the public after construction. (The Japan Times reported.) This year, the exhibition will feature dolls from different eras, including a new donation of dolls once commissioned for a baby girl in 1844.

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Categories: Faiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

Chinese New Year: Welcome the Year of the Goat

Oranges with green leaf tops on red black-print patterned paper with wooden reeds in back

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 19: The Chinese Year of the Goat starts today with a 15-day celebration that circles the globe.

The color red, which is considered auspicious and homophonous with the Chinese word for “prosperous,” dominates décor in nearly every event. The Spring Festival, as it is also termed, ushers in warmer weather and marks the time of great gatherings among family and friends. When the New Year approaches, it is customarily ushered in with a Reunion Dinner that is replete with symbolic foods. For two weeks, visits are made and hosted with family and friends, gifts are exchanged and merriment is par for the course.

CHINESE NEW YEAR:
FROM BUDDHA TO THE GOAT

Legend has it that when the Buddha (or the Jade Emperor) invited animals to a New Year’s celebration, only 12 showed up; these 12 animals were each rewarded with a year. Tradition has it that a person’s birth year indicates that he or she will possess the characteristics of the animal in reign during that year. In 2015, the eighth animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac—the goat—will have supremacy. (Select watch brands have designed goat faces for this event, as Forbes reported.) The goat represents independence and an observant nature.

A 15-DAY FESTIVAL:
DINNERS, RED ENVELOPES & LANTERNS

Vase with branches with red envelopes hanging all over branches

Red envelopes hang from branches at the Pechanga Resort and Casino, in California. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Unrivaled among Chinese holidays, the New Year begins weeks in advance with families cleaning and hanging paper cutouts in their homes, shopping for fish, meats and other specialty foods, and purchasing new clothing. Businesses pay off debts, gifts are distributed to business associates and everything is completed according to symbolism—for good luck, prosperity and health in the coming year. (Wikipedia has details.) In Buddhist and Taoist households, home altars and statues are cleaned.

On the eve of the New Year, a Reunion Dinner is shared with extended family members. Dumplings, meat dishes, fish and an assortment of hot and cold dishes are considered essential for the table. (News alert: This year, Filipino-Chinese and Chinese Catholics in Manila were granted an episcopal jurisdiction exemption for Ash Wednesday fasting, in light of the eve of Chinese New Year.) Traditionally, red envelopes filled with money or chocolate coins are given to children. Following dinner, some families visit a local temple.

For the next two weeks, feasts will be shared with family and friends, fireworks will fill the skies and parades with dragons and costumes will fill the streets. (View colorful photos from CNN.) Friends and relatives frequently bring a Tray of Togetherness to the households they visit, as a token of thanks to the host. Through the New Year festivities, elders are honored and deities are paid homage, with all festivities being wrapped up with the Lantern Festival.

HOMEMADE CHINESE DINNER

If carryout isn’t your idea of an authentic Chinese experience, check out these sites for delicious New Year recipes:

IN THE NEWS:
DIGITAL RED ENVELOPES
AND SYDNEY’S GIGANTIC DISPLAY

A new approach to the red envelope tradition was unveiled last month, when the company Tencent announced the capability to send electronic red packets via smartphone. (CNBC has the story.) The service, which saw $2.9 million worth of transfers in its first 24 hours, allows users to send and receive digital envelopes of money.

In Australia, 90 warriors originally created for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games are lighting up Sydney Harbour, as part of the city’s Chinese New Year Festival. The warriors, which are modeled after the terracotta warriors found in the tomb of China’s first Emperor in 1974, are lit in red, green, yellow and blue. (Read more from ABC.net.) Australia’s program is the largest Lunar New Year celebration outside of Asia.

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Categories: Faiths of East AsiaInternational Observances