These wooden sticks are called O-Toba(大塔婆） in Japanese.
"O（大）" means big. "Toba(塔婆）" means "Buddhist monument."
Toba is an abbreviation of "Sotoba(卒塔婆") which originally came from the Sanskrit word of "Stupa." According to Japanese-English Buddhist dictionary, a stupa (literally meaning "heap") is a dome shaped shrine where Buddhists place relics or ashes of Shakyamuni Buddha.
The custom of building stupa was spread widely together with the teaching of Buddhism and now there are quite varieties of stupa in the world. Interestingly , "tower" in English is called "Tou(w)" in Japanese. There is an opinion that their roots are "stupa."
For Buddhists, building a stupa is believed to be very beneficial not only in this world but also good for the future karma. The dedication of a stupa will cause you good Karma and you can transfer this merit to the deceased, too. On the other hand, being negative about a stupa, especially destruction of a stupa is a grave sin.
I think Buddhism needed these stupa in order for its propagation. The more stupas, the more people can see them and possibly they can come. As a result, the more people get to know Buddhism. On the other hand, by making the act of destroying stupas very grave sin, Buddhism was able to protect itself from others who try to destroy something new.
During O-Bon time, we dedicate these O-Toba which has deceased (Dharma) name and sponsor's name. This is to transfer the merit of dedication to the deceased. We also offer prayers, blessings, and flowers thinking of them in front of O-Toba. This is called "Eko" in Japanese, meaning "merit transference."
Merit Transference is not one way from you to the deceased, but both ways between you and deceased. "Flower for the deceased from you" can be "flower from the deceased for you." At the same time, prayer for the deceased from you can be prayer from the deceased for you, too.
For O-Toba and Toro-Lantern Order form, please call me at 742-6735 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last but not least, I'd like to thank our President Alvin Akimoto, Joe Miyahara, Edwin Shinagawa, Shuji Sanekane and Asahi Okamoto for preparing for our O-Toba, this year.