One of the highlights of living in Japan is the variety of festivals and other special occasions that are celebrated throughout the year. Whether it’s a crisp spring day or a cold winter afternoon, you can reliably find crowds of people flocking to a local shrine. One of the most celebrated festivals in Tanabata, a summer festival in which people participate by writing on cards of paper. This festival takes place over a number of dates in the summer, so ahead of its first celebration on July 7th, let us tell you about Tanabata, the “Seventh Festival”
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The Japanese Tanabata festival is based on the folklore story of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, which dates back to over 2000 years ago in Chinese history. This story is one of the most iconic romance stories in East Asia, with its tragic and romantic notes inspiring countless new stories in the years since. The story follows Orihime, a princess of the heavens who spends all her time weaving clothes by the bank of the Milky Way, which makes her frustrated that she is too busy to find love. Her father permitted her to meet Hikoboshi, a cowherd on the other side of the river, who Orihime fell in love with and married. Their resulting marriage caused the pair to neglect their work, which made Orihime’s father forbid them from meeting. He did allow them to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, which is where the Tanabata celebration originated from.
While the popular version of the tale in Japan explicitly makes note of the date of celebration as “The seventh day of the seventh month”, this has resulted in a large grey area around how the festival is celebrated. In modern times. As part of the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the use of the Gregorian calendar, which differed significantly from the previously used Chinese calender model with Japanese variations. As a result, many traditional festivals and events in Japanese society are affected by a “month” gap between their days of celebration on the Gregorian Calendar and the Chinese Calendar. Tanabata is one such event affected: based on the Japanese calendar, the date for Tanabata changes over time; in 2019, under the Japanese calendar Tanabata would be celebrated on August 7th. As a result, there are Tanabata celebrations on various days over a month long period following July 7th.
The most memorable part of celebrating Tanabata is the sight of hundreds of paper cards strung to bamboo branches. People participating take small pieces of colored people and write wishes on them before stringing them onto bamboo branches. These wishes can be for anything from funny jokes to serious thoughts, and they can be written in a variety of styles such as poetry or song. People can also attach a variety of decorations to these trees such as charms or origami. At the end of the celebration, the bamboo branches and the cards attached to them will be burned, so that the wishes of those who put up cards may travel upwards and come true. It’s truly an experience that feels in touch with the star-crossed lovers of legend.
Because of its origins in East Asian folklore and the bright colorful decorations involved, Tanabata really stands out among other japanese festivals. Rather than being organized as a worship session for a local deity or warding off disease and famine, it’s simply a large-scale communal celebration of a popular story. The romantic and tragic elements of the tale of Orihime and Hikoboshi inspire so many people to participate in Tanabata and create wishes of their own. When you visit a Tanabata site and see the multitudes of wish cards, you’re humbled by this expression of both community and individuality found all over Japan.