Japan has its spectacular festivals, such as the Nebuta Matsuri of Aomori, where several million visitors watch massive illuminated floats paraded through the night streets. It has its dancing festivals, most famously the Awa Odori of Tokushima, when practically the entire city goes whole hog terpsichorean. And as well as snow festivals, fire festivals and water festivals, the country even has its naked festivals, which, as one might suppose, are not characterized by an over-abundance of clothing among participants. But perhaps the most quietly charming of Japan’s multifarious festive events is the one that usually takes place this month and goes by the name of Tanabata.
Also known as the Star Festival, Tanabata is normally celebrated on the seventh of July, though in some places it is held on the same day of August. Those dates are taken as Gregorian calendar equivalents of the originally celebrated seventh day of the seventh month on Japan’s older lunar calendar. As with many aspects of traditional life in this country, Tanabata has its origins in China, where it is known as the Qixi Festival, and was introduced to Japan in the eighth century. The Qixi Festival is based on the ancient Chinese folk story of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd.
That story has many variations, but they are all based on the love between a weaver, who is identified with the star Vega, and a herdsman, who is identified with the star Altair. In one Japanese version, Orihime (“weaving princess”) used to spend her time assiduously weaving garments for the gods. But then, Orihime chanced to meet a handsome young man, Hikoboshi, leading an ox, and the two fell instantly in love. Thereafter, the couple devoted practically all their time to doing what young lovers are usually happiest doing. The result was that Orihime neglected her weaving and Hikoboshi forsook his cattle. Orihime’s father, the Emperor of Heaven, was highly displeased with this state of affairs, and so he felt compelled to place the overly ardent lovers on opposite sides of the Milky Way, which is called Amanogawa (“heavenly river”) in Japanese. He decreed that they would be permitted to meet only once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when a great company of heavenly magpies would form a bridge across that river, allowing the couple to be reunited.
Tanabata is included among Japan’s five seasonal festivals (sekku), which were decreed by the government in the Edo period (1603–1867), though the festival itself has declined somewhat in general popularity since those times. The celebration of Tanabata does vary according to the locale, but it frequently involves the display of long bamboo branches, decorated with narrow strips of colored paper as well as various talismans and small ornaments, such as paper cranes, which are symbols of longevity. The paper strips are typically inscribed with wishes or romantic hopes, sometimes written in the form of poetry. When the festival is over, the decorations are often set afloat on a river or ritually burned.
The place best known for its overall exuberance with Tanabata is Sendai. That northern city really takes Tanabata to its heart when it holds the festival on August 6 to 8. The most conspicuous feature of Sendai’s Tanabata is the thousands of colorful streamers that decorate the city’s shopping arcades. Made of washi paper and bamboo, the streamers are three to five meters in length and symbolize the threads of Orihime’s loom. Ichinomiya, near Nagoya, is also rather keen on Tanabata. Its Tanabata may not be on quite as grand a scale as Sendai’s, but Ichinomiya is rather proud of its beauty contest, in which local belles vie to be selected as Miss Tanabata or Miss Orimono (“textile”).
When Tanabata comes around, people of a romantic inclination may want to wish for good weather. Though Orihime and her dearest are allowed to meet on that one night of the year, divine magpies are fickle, fair-weather creatures. If it happens to rain on the fateful evening, the birds simply refuse to supply their civil engineering services. And so there is nothing for it but for the divided lovers to wait for another year to go by.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.