Japanese Buddhist memorial services are festive events. Even though family members dress in funeral attire, the mood is never somber. Kids like it because they get to eat sweets before and after the temple service. Adults like it because it’s a mini family reunion with good food and drink. Buddhist priests and temples like it because they get to make some money.
It probably seems weird to non-Buddhists, westerners especially, that Nichiren Buddhists observe their founder’s memorial with a big celebration: parades, brass bands, good food and booze. Not very Zen Buddhist like, not at all. Why do they celebrate like that? On the surface it’s a celebration of Nichiren’s life. What he was and what he accomplished. On a deeper level, it’s a birthday celebrating Nichiren leaving this world to become a Buddha, just like Shakyamuni Buddha’s great promise to all living begins in the Lotus Sutra that they will attain Buddhahood.
Most of the Nichiren Oeshiki stories tell of Nichiren’s passing in the usual overcooked mythology for followers: “cherry trees in front of the residence began mysteriously blooming out of season as the world acknowledged the passing of a great sage and Bodhisattva.” Not that anybody really believes that (winter cherry trees bloom around the late November time when Nichiren passed away as correctly calculated from the lunar calendar). It sounds nice but doesn’t matter. To me the more important way to celebrate Nichiren’s passing is to celebrate with a lot of noise and have fun. What better way to honor a person’s brief life in this precious world and their passage to becoming a Buddha.