A sign of summer
By the start of July summer should be in full swing, and nothing says summer in Japan like Tanabata. Also known as the Seventh Evening and the Star Festival, it’s an event that delivers a rush of colour and vibrancy to the streets of Japan that is conveyed through a variety of paper decorations, kimonos, and coloured wish trees.
It’s a celebration that most commonly takes place on July 7th (hence the Seventh Evening); however, some festivities also occur on August the 7th due to the disparity between the traditionally used Lunar Solar calendar and the now commonplace Gregorian calendar. In any case, Tanabata is a festival that incorporates wishing for the future, stargazing and a traditional love story.
Sounds interesting, right?
The origin in the stars
Tanabata primarily comes from a folklore tale first heard in China 2600 years ago. The Japanese version of the story is told as follows:
Orihime was a princess and a skilled weaver who produced wonderful clothes alongside the bank of the Amanogawa river. Over time she began to feel sad at the thought of never finding someone to fall in love with due to her dedication to weaving. Her father, Tentei, lord of the sky, noticed Orihime’s sadness and decided to introduce her to Hikoboshi, a cowherder, who lived the other side of the river.
There was an instant attraction between the pair and were married soon after.
However, the love between the two began to run so deep that Hikoboshi began to neglect his cowherd and Orihime neglected her weaving, much to the anger of Tentei. He showed his disapproval by forbidding the pair from being together. Both Orihime and Hikoboshi were so beside themselves with sadness that they continued to neglect their duties. Orihime pleaded with her father to allow them to be together; moved by her daughter’s sadness and the care he felt for her, he allowed them to see each other once a year on the Seventh day of the Seventh Month.
When the day finally arrived however, she found that the river was too deep to cross. Orihime cried and cried until finally a group of magpies flew down and made a bridge with their wings so that the two could meet once again.
This story coincides with an astronomical event in which the stars Vega and Altair meet in the sky on the seventh month, normally of which would be visually separated by the milky way — hence the alternate name the Star Festival.
What is Tanabata celebrating?
Now that we know the story; Tanabata is a celebration of the meeting of these deities, lovers and stars.
Festivals take hold around the country, and decorations appear referencing the stars and the work of Orihime. Paper decorations are most common and are used for their representation of weaving; Fukinagashi (streamers) are shaped like weaving yarn, Kimigoromo which are paper made Kimonos, and Kusudama which are origami balls that are often attached to streamers to look like stars and the heavens. It is a time when colourful kimonos are more often worn in public due to the combination of the peak of summer, colours and patterns and the nod to Orihime.
However, there is a little more to the Tanabata festival than just the observation of this time-old tale. The corresponding Chinese festival of Qixi, also centered around the traditional folk story, included an element of wishing. For example, girls would traditionally wish for better domestic skills and the chance to find a partner. This is keeping in with the theme of the story and the recognition of how — In the Japanese version — Orihime wished to find a husband.
The element of wishing carried over to the original form of Tanabata in the year 755 and continues to be a major part of modern-day celebrations; to the point that, the festival is also about celebrating the chance to make a wish for the future. Anyone can make a wish during Tanabata and is customary to write it on a piece of coloured paper called a tanzaku, which is then hung on a bamboo tree. Some festivals will then send the trees down the river or burn them to release the wishes into the sky.
The idea of tanzaku has become a major part of tanabata as it’s an aspect that gets everyone involved. When writing a wish on a tanzaku, there is more to choosing the right colour than just your picking your favourite, each colour has a meaning and more chance to become true if chosen appropriately.
White is a representation of responsibility and resolve. This means you should use white if you are making a wish regarding personal goals and achievement.
Yellow is a representation of friendships and relationships. Making a wish regarding friends, love or even business should be written on yellow.
Red is a representation of family. Making a wish on behalf of your parents or relatives has more chance with a red tanzaku.
Blue is a representation of behaviour and character. If you’re looking to wish for self-improvement and development, you should use a blue tanzaku.
Traditionally black but can also be purple, these colours are a representation of skill and knowledge. These colours are used for wishes regarding academic work and learning.
Tanabata outside of Japan
While many Japanese festivals, celebrations and traditions are held almost exclusively in Japan, Tanabata is one exception to this scenario.
Sao Paulo in Brazil has one of the largest communities of Japanese people outside Japan and a Tanabata festival has been held in the city every year since 1979. With this being the case, the environment and atmosphere is almost indistinguishable from that in Japan. References to Orihime and Hikoboshi remain, and traditional decorations, music, and performances are plentiful.
Closer to home, Tanabata doesn’t hold much significance in the UK, unfortunately; however, some ideas and sentiments are finding a place amongst the British population. This year (2021) ‘Wish trees’ are being planted around London where people may write a wish on coloured pieces of paper and hang them on specially planted trees.
Sounds familiar right? It’s been noted to have been inspired by the Tanabata custom. Here is a little more detail.
There is something incredibly poetic about the celebration of Tanabata. Whether or not the story behind the season is in the forefront of people’s minds when attending a festival, is up for debate; yet, with the excitement and hopeful nature of wish-making, the personal touch of hand-crafted decorations, and just the idea of innocent and unconditional fun, Tanabata signals a time of year and celebration itself that would be hard not to enjoy.