What is the Japanese Tanabata Festival?
Japan is known for its wonderful festivals and vibrant celebrations, particularly during the glorious summer months, and Tanabata is certainly included in these. Tanabata translates to evening of the seventh and is derived from a Chinese festival known as Qixi. Although the origins of Tanabata are Chinese, Tanabata became a part of Japan in as far back as the Heian period and is still a large celebration today. If you’d like to know more about this famous festival, we’re going to dive into the history and traditional celebrations of this day!
History of Tanabata
The celebration of Tanabata comes from a tale incorporated in Chinese mythology. The tale features Orihime, a weaving princess, and Hikoboshi, a cow herder, living in space and represented by the stars Vega and Altair. The story goes that Orihime feared that she wouldn’t have the opportunity to fall in love as she had no time to meet anyone. Tentei, her father, introduced her to Hikoboshi to help with her worries. The meeting was a success and the two fell in love and married, but as a result, Orihime’s weaving didn’t get done and Hikoboshi was no longer herding his cows. In anger, Tentei banished them to separation on opposite sides of the Milky Way. Orihime became so sad that Tentei agreed to let them meet on the 7th day of the 7th Lunar month.
As Tanabata is based on the Lunar calendar, the 7th month better corresponds with August than July. Because of this, the date in which it is celebrated is July 7th in some regions and August 7th in others.
These celebrations are held throughout Japan, with some being smaller, low-key traditions and decorations, and others being large festivities. An important part of these celebrations involves writing wishes onto small sections of coloured paper, which are then hung onto bamboo branches. The Tanabata legend believes that Orihime and Hikoboshi cannot meet on a cloudy day, so people often wish for clear skies, and these branches are often displayed in front of shops, houses, and at various festivals held in celebration.
There are numerous Tanabata festivals held in celebration throughout Japan, which are also referred to as Star Festivals. These are extremely well-known and highly-attended throughout the country, and 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.
Japan has a culture rich with celebrations and traditions, and ones that date far back in Japan’s history. To find out about other famous festivals in Japan, take a look at our guide on some of the biggest festivals in the country, and Japanese festivals in July.