15/03/2022

Tanabata, A Legend of Star-Crossed Lovers and A Festival of Wishes

Tanabata in Japan is marked by huge colourful streamers hung from bamboo. Also known as the Star Festival, people make wishes by writing them on paper strips or folded talismans and hanging them on a bamboo tree. Originating from China, Tanabata has become ingrained in Japanese culture.


Table of Contents

  1. The Tanabata Legend
  2. Tanabata in Japan
  3. How is Tanabata Celebrated in Japan
  4. The Three Main Tanabata Festivals in Japan
  5. Summary

Tanabata 七夕 is based on China’s Qi Xi (same Kanji) Festival that celebrates the romantic legend of “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”. There are many variations of this legend across Asia but the gist of the story is the same. Let’s have a look at Japan’s version of the story below. 

The Tanabata Legend

Once upon a time, there was a cow herder named Hikoboshi and a weaver girl named Orihime. Orihime was the beloved daughter of the Heavenly Father, Tentei. As the Goddess of Weaving, she’d sit on the banks of the Heavenly River, Amanogawa and weave cloth. Working hard everyday, Orihime became depressed at the thought of never finding true love. Tentei, who loved his daughter, allowed Hikoboshi and Orihime to meet. They fell in love at first sight and were wed. 

But the happy couple were so engrossed in each other that they started to neglect their duties - Orihime stopped weaving cloth and Hikoboshi’s cows ran rampant. Tentei was enraged and intent on keeping them from ever meeting again, separating them with the Amanogawa. Orihime was inconsolable, but her anguish moved her father who allowed them to meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month. 

The 7th day of the 7th month arrived when the couple were to meet but the Amanogawa was too difficult to cross without a bridge. Unable to meet, Hikoboshi and Orihime cried out for each other. A flock of kasasagi (magpies) were touched at their love and formed a bridge over the Amanogawa, thus reuniting the lovers. 

Every year on that same day, kasasagi form a bridge for the lovers to meet. However, if it rains on that day then the magpies would not appear which is why many people pray for clear weather on Tanabata so that the lovers may be together.

Tanabata in Japan

How did Japan adopt Tanabata?

The original Chinese legend and Qi Xi festival was spread to Japan during the Nara period. At that time, the festivities including poetry writing were enjoyed only by the imperial family. The Manyoshu, an anthology of Japanese waka contains a considerable amount of Tanabata related poems. It wasn’t until the Edo era when the common folk partook in the celebration of Tanabata. The culture of wishing upon the star and decorations also gradually developed with time. 

※ Kokugakuin University, “Chinese legend adopted differently from area to area

When is Tanabata celebrated in Japan?

The celebration of Tanabata differs from region to region in Japan. Traditionally, Qi Xi is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month of the Lunar calendar. Since Japan has adopted the Gregorian calendar, many regions in Japan celebrate Tanabata on July 7th of the Western calendar. However, some regions still follow the Lunar calendar and thus celebrate Tanabata sometime in August.

How is Tanabata Celebrated in Japan

Japan has a very classic way of celebrating Tanabata that you can’t mistake for anywhere else. Here are the traditional ways of celebrating Tanabata in Japan. 

Make a Wish

A bamboo tree adorned with many colourful strips of paper is one of the classic images of Tanabata. These paper strips are called Tanzaku 短冊. A traditional Tanabata custom is to write your wish on a Tanzaku and hang it on a bamboo tree to make a wish. 

In Sendai, apart from Tanzaku, they also use 6 other symbolic origami decorations. These are paper cranes, purses, kimono, fishing net, trashbag, and windsock. Not only are they pretty to look at, they are another form of wishing.

※ Sendai Tanabata, “Decorations

Decorations

Colourful decorations are another highlight of Tanabata. The most outstanding ones are long bamboo poles with washi paper streamers attached to them. These are usually huge and brightly coloured making them difficult to miss. They are usually used as decoration at Tanabata Festivals, stations and even shopping malls. 

Another star decoration is the kusudama 薬玉. It is a large paper ball that acts as a topper for the streamers. Although we say ball, it also comes in various shapes like stars, diamonds, etc. 

Festivals

Tanabata Festivals are a big deal in Japan. It is pretty much the same as a normal matsuri with food stalls and music. What makes it special is the Tanabata decorations (above) and wish-making. Many stores and stalls along the street will have a bamboo plant ready. Shopkeepers and staff welcome festival-goers, especially kids, to write a wish and hang them upon a bamboo branch. 

The Three Main Tanabata Festivals in Japan

When Tanabata comes around, many festivals are celebrated throughout Japan. Of the many, there are 3 grandest and greatest Tanabata Festivals that you should experience. 

 1.Sendai Tanabata Matsuri

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri is celebrated in Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture and lasts for 3 days from August 6th to 8th. The biggest draw of the festival is the large scale Tanabata streamer decorations. Aside from that, Sendai’s unique 7 Tanabata decorations, including the original paper strip Tanzaku and the 6 other symbolic origami decorations mentioned above, make for a beautifully decorated matsuri.

 2.Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri

Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri is a 3 day event held at Kanagawa Prefecture’s Hiratsuka City in early July - the dates are not fixed every year but will always include the 7th July. Not only is it one of the 3 biggest Tanabata Festivals in Japan, it is the biggest one in the Kanto region. This matsuri also draws crowds with its large number of colourful bamboo streamer decorations. Stage performances, fun parades, music playing, and food stalls also make it a lively event. 

 3.Anjo Tanabata Matsuri

The Anjo Tanabata Matsuri is celebrated at Aichi Prefecture’s Anjo City for 3 days in early August. Initially started to boost the city’s economy after the war, the Anjo Tanabata Matsuri has now grown to be one of the big 3 festivals in Japan. Parades, wishing events, and performances bring the downtown street near Anjo Station to life with joy, hope and excitement. 

Summary

Tanabata Festival is a great opportunity to enjoy Japanese traditions and customs. For international students, some universities or Japanese language schools even give students an opportunity to write Tanzaku and hang them on bamboo branches. Tanabata matsuri aren’t limited to the three great festivals; check online for event schedules. You never know - your nearest shopping street may be holding a small scale Tanabata matsuri. Just pray that it doesn’t rain! 

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