Photo/IllutrationThe “bon-zuna” summer ritual takes place in the Higashi-Tanaka district of Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture, in August 2015. (Provided by the Ibaraki prefectural education board)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The first full-scale survey has started on “bon-zuna,” a long-held but mysterious traditional summer ritual that involves children bringing the souls of ancestors to homes in a community.

The Ibaraki prefectural education board is expected to spend three years studying and recording the history and content of the rite.

The number of areas that hold bon-zuna has plummeted because of the shrinking population of children involved in the traditional event.

During the Bon festival holidays in mid-August, young people pull and carry straw ropes to welcome and see off their ancestors’ souls. The straw ropes are believed to represent dragons and snakes that can be taken over by the spirits.

In a typical bon-zuna, children visit graveyards on Aug. 13 while pulling straw ropes to welcome the souls of their ancestors. They then tour local homes to send the spirits to their families.

The souls return from the residences on Aug. 15, when the children visit the homes in reverse order.

The event’s content varies in different regions. In some areas, a tug of war is held using the bon-zuna rope.

“But a systematic survey has never been carried out” on the ritual, an official at the Cultural Affairs Agency said.

The agency said bon-zuna is currently held only in Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures as well as the northern Kyushu region.

The rare tradition in the eastern Kanto region was included in the central government’s intangible folk culture asset list in March 2015, meaning that details of the ceremony must be recorded.

In preliminary research in 2015, the Ibaraki prefectural education board began asking municipal education boards about bon-zuna. It found the rite has taken place in 103 areas, 51 of which still hold bon-zuna.

Bon-zuna is likely held in Tsukuba, Omitama, Ibaraki town and Ami. But it is not organized in municipalities in northern and western Ibaraki Prefecture.

The prefectural education board will study 15 of the areas that still host bon-zuna. It will also record preparation processes, ways to welcome and see off ancestors, shouts in the ritual, how to handle ropes and other details in other regions.

Aki Tokumaru, a folklore professor at the University of Tsukuba’s graduate school, was chosen to chair the study committee at its first meeting on April 24.

The prefectural education board also plans to re-examine areas that said bon-zuna no longer exists in the preliminary survey. There is a possibility that the events have continued in those regions.

“It (bon-zuna) is a very important event for studying local culture,” said an official of the prefectural education board’s cultural section. “We will get an overall grasp of the rite through inspections and interviews.”