What is the Japanese Tanabata Festival?
Japan is known for its many diverse festivals and vibrant celebrations, and the Tanabata Festival is one of the most prominent to take place during the glorious summer months. ‘Tanabata’ translates to ‘the evening of the seventh’ as it annually takes place on the 7th of July. Derived from the Chinese celebration known as Qixi Festival, the Tanabata traditions grew popular in Japan as early as during the Japanese Heian period and are still commonly celebrated today. If you’d like to know more about this famous festival, join us as we dive into the history and traditional celebrations of this day!
七夕まつり (たなばた) tanabata matsuri = Tanabata Festival
七 (しち, なな) shichi or nana = seven
夕 (ゆう, せき) yū or seki = evening
(Initially, ‘七夕’ was read as shichiseki. However, a Shinto purification ceremony which takes place around the same time gradually merged with the festival. Tanabata is actually the name of a loom used to create a special cloth for the Shinto ceremony.)
The Tanabata Festival Story
The Tanabata celebration originates from a tale in Chinese mythology over 2,000 years old. The fable follows the daughter of the Sky King, Tintei, his daughter, Princess Orihime, and a local cowherder, Hikoboshi. The princess and her father lived alongside the Heavenly River, where Princess Orihime wove fine garments. The Sky King loved wearing her creations, and though she liked to make him happy, she felt lonely and sad as she wove by the river.
Seeing her sadness, the King arranged for the princess to meet Hikoboshi, a cowherder who lived on the riverbank opposite. Immediately, they fell in love with one another and quickly married, spending so much time together they both began to neglect their duties. The Hikoboshi’s cows began to roam the skies and Princess Orihime forgot all about her weaving.
Furious with the outcome, the King separated them to either side of the river, forbidding them to meet. His daughter was heartbroken and pleaded with her father to allow her to see Hikoboshi again. The King couldn’t bear to see the princess miserable and allowed the couple to reunite on the 7th day of the 7th month each year. Still, the princess wept that she could not cross the river. Upon hearing her cry, a flock of magpies flew over and, with their wings, created a bridge for the princess to cross the river, and reunite with Hikoboshi.
Now, the romantic tale of the Tanabata Festival is celebrated on the 7th of July. The myth is set upon the changing constellations in the night sky: Princess Orihime is actually the star, Vega, while Hikoboshi is Altair. And the heavenly river? That’s the Milky Way!
The star festival of Tanabata was originally based on the Lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, meaning August 7th is actually a more accurate date to celebrate the celestial event. This means that in some regions, the Tanabata festival takes place in August instead of July.
These celebrations are held throughout Japan, with some being smaller, low-key traditions and decorations, where others are large festivities. An important Tanabata tradition involves writing wishes on small strips of coloured paper (tanzaku) and tying them to bamboo branches. As the Tanabata legend goes, Orihime and Hikoboshi cannot meet on a cloudy day, so people often wish for clear skies.
The bamboo branches are displayed in front of homes, shops, and at various festivals held in celebration. Aside from sharing wishes with the heavens, brightly coloured strips of paper are also used to decorate for the Star Festival. Paper streamers brighten shopping streets and train stations and anywhere the Tanabata festival is celebrated.
Star Festival in Japan
There are numerous Tanabata festivals held in celebration throughout Japan, which are also referred to as ‘Star Festivals’. They’re very well-known and highly-attended throughout the country: it’s a fun celebration for all!
Often, these lively and colourful festivals are held in shopping malls and streets, with lots of vibrant streamers and displays. The most famous Japanese festival for Tanabata is that of the Sendai Tanabata festival, which is showered in decorations and features a wonderful firework display. The largest Tanabata festival, however, is held in Kanagawa, known as the Shonan Hiratsuku Tanabata Festival.
Since Tanabata celebrations were first introduced to Japan, people began to add their Obon traditions to the day. Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom whereby they honour the spirit of ancestors, and the Obon festival involves the lighting of paper lanterns that are then sent out to sea. As a result, some Japanese Tanabata festivals send the bamboo branches down a river or set them alight at the end of the festival.
If you’re interested in learning about other Japanese Summer festivals and celebrations, read our guide to Golden Week in Japan – a week full of national holidays! Why not celebrate the celestial ceremony in style sporting our stellar Bamboo Silk Vintage Kimono. Here’s hoping all your wishes come true on the 7th of July!