HONOLULU – Rosie Rowe usually just watches Honolulu's annual lantern floating ceremony on live television. This time, she wanted to honor her mother, father and brother, who have all passed on.
"I wrote a message of thanks for the people who made me who I am," said Rowe, 50, as she fought back tears. "I think about them every time this event comes up."
The Honolulu resident joined more than 40,000 other people who gathered at Ala Moana Beach Park on Monday to remember their loved ones and pay tribute to their ancestors on Memorial Day.
Many of them wrote the names of loved ones who have passed, and personal messages to them, on the sides of lanterns. Some wrote prayers and others wrote poems. At sunset, they waded into the ocean just off the beach, set their candlelit lanterns in the ocean, and watched them drift off into the horizon.
The Japanese Buddhist sect Shinnyo-en organized the event, now in its 13th year.
In a year marked by natural disasters, many participants were thinking of those who lost their lives in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the tornadoes that ripped through Missouri, Alabama and other parts of the U.S. mainland in recent months.
Akiko Inumaru, 49, who was visiting from Fukuoka, Japan, said this year's lantern floating ceremony carried a special meaning because so many people lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami. She noted that many people in northern Japan still don't have homes, and she was touched by the widespread show of support for her home country that she saw in Hawaii.
"I was moved to see a sign on a bus that said 'Gambare Nippon,'" she said, using a phrase that roughly means "Don't give up, Japan."
"I was happy that even in Hawaii people are saying 'Gambare Nippon,'" Inumaru said.
Part of the ceremony's appeal is the beauty of the lanterns slowly drifting off in the water as the sun sets.
Those participating said the ritual also helps them cope with the loss of a loved one, as though physically setting the lantern in the water helps them spiritually let go of someone they're mourning. They also speak of the power that comes from sharing the experience with thousands of others around them.
"Lantern floating touches your heart. It doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what religion you come from, it doesn't matter what culture, what you believe in," said Roy Ho, the executive director of the Na Lei Aloha Foundation, a social services organization founded by Shinnyo-en that helps organize the event.
In Japan, the centuries-old tradition is generally observed in July or August to coincide with obon, the season when ancestors are honored. In Hawaii, Shinnyo-en holds a ceremony on Memorial Day, in the hopes this will help it win wider acceptance among the public.
Shinnyo-en's leader, Her Holiness Shinso Ito, said having the event on Memorial Day blends American and Japanese cultures.
"I thought there would be harmony if they combined, and it would be nice if harmony spread just a little bit more in the world," Ito said in an interview before the ceremony.
The event has gained a broad following since 1999, when 7,000 people — many of them Shinnyo-en members from Japan — gathered at Keehi Lagoon next to Honolulu's airport. It has since grown sixfold, draws participants of many faiths and backgrounds, and has moved to a larger beach park in the center of town. A television station broadcasts the ceremony live in Hawaii.
Leaders of various religious denominations in Honolulu — representing the Catholic diocese, a Jewish temple, the Episcopal diocese, and other Buddhist sects — attended. A few helped set flame to a giant torch called the Light of Harmony during the ceremony.
Shinnyo-en prepared 3,000 lanterns for Monday's event. Not all who gathered on the beach floated their own lanterns — many came just to watch. Many others wrote messages that were put together on one lantern.
Volunteers collected the lanterns afterward so they wouldn't drift out to sea, and Shinnyo-en plans to respectfully recondition them so they can be used again next year.
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