Tanabata – The Japanese Star Festival

Image from Wikimedia commons

For Americans around the world, July 4th is always a day of celebration, and here in Washington, DC, the sky is always lit every year with fireworks. On the other side of the world, however, a few days from now another celestial celebration will take place, and for many people in asian countries, wishes will be sent up to the heavens on the evening of July 7th.

Image from Wikimedia commons

In Japan July 7th is when the festival Tanabata is celebrated. The Star Festival, as it is usually known, has its basis in Asian folklore primarily native to East Asian countries. While the celebrations that take place in contemporary Japan are uniquely representative of Japanese culture, the festival itself is Chinese in origin. The Chinese festival is known as Qixi.

Image from The Nihon Sun

The story of Tanabata is the story of two lovers who can only meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. In the myth, the king of heaven had a daughter, Orihime, who was a weaver. Because she worked so hard to create the cloth, she could not meet any suitors. Her father then arranged her to meet Hikoboshi,  a suitor who lived on the other side of the river Amanogawa. When the two met, they instantly fell in love and married; however their marriage brought chaos to their heavenly kingdom. The king of heaven separated them, thus allowing them only to meet one day a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is said that on this day, the lovers’ constellations shine brightest.

Image from X3 Magazine

Celebrations in Japan for Tanabata involve the writing of wishes on vertical strips of paper, usually in the form of poetry. The wishes are then hung on trees, usually of bamboo. Sometimes artificial trees are made to become wishing trees because in most cases the trees are set afloat on a river or burned so the wishes can be carried off to the heavens. The festival is usually anticipated by young women who have romantic wishes due to the folklore behind it. Hence it is also known as the “Lovers’ Festival.”

Image from Tokyo ezine

In contemporary Japan, the Sendai Tanabata festival is probably the largest and most well-known celebration in the eastern part of the country. It is one of the three largest summer festivals and a major tourist attraction.

Photo by Michael Tonge. From A Billion Voices.

During the festival, seven types of paper decorations are usually put out to symbolize the different types of wishes that people can send to the heavens. The most famous type of decoration and today most synonymous with the festival is the large ornamental ball with streamers. The decoration itself was a contemporary addition to the traditional paper wishes conceived in the 1940’s by merchants in Sendai. The strips of paper hanging represent the cloth that Orihime would weave.

Image from Pint4Japan

Photo by Josep M. Berengueras

While the most common wishes during the season are for love, health, and prosperity, you can of course, wish for anything on this special day. Do you know what you’ll wish for this year?

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