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The origins and legend of Tanabata: Japan’s 'Star Festival'

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By cinnamonellie, grape Japan

One of the most important and most celebrated events happening in Japan during the summertime is Tanabata 七夕. This iconic event is celebrated on July 7.

The Five Seasonal Celebrations

Tanabata is just one of many seasonal events with origins in China which are celebrated annually in Japan.

The seasonal celebrations are also known under the name of 節句 sekku. Together there are five in number and all of them have allocated a plant/flower. These five sekku are celebrated every year, just like Tanabata, by all people in Japan, from nursery children to adults.

The first celebration is "Human Day" (人日 Jinjintsu), on January 7. Jinjitsu is represented by nanakusa 七草 (seven herbs). The celebration of the seven herbs (七草の節句 nanakusa-no-sekku) is when Japanese people eat a rice porridge made with seven herbs.

Girls’ Day, Hinamatsuri 雛祭, celebrated on March 3, is represented by the peach flower. (The festival is also known as Jomi 上巳, or 桃の節句 Momo no Sekku).

The national holiday of May 5, Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi こどもの日), is represented by the Japanese iris. (The festival is also known as 端午の節句 tango no sekku).

The fourth festival, Tanabata (also known as shichiseki no sekku 七夕の節句), is represented by “bamboo”

Finally, the fifth is Choyo no Sekku 重陽の節句 (also known as Kiku no Sekku 菊の節句) on September 9, which is represented by the chrysanthemum.

The Star Festival/Tanabata’s origins

Tanabata was part of the Obon Festival and dates back approximately 2000 years ago. It is said that the reason why 七夕 (Shichiseki) is also read as Tanabata dates back to the old days. Tanabata was originally written as 棚機 from 精霊棚 shoryodana, a shelf on which offerings during Obon are placed for the spirits of the ancestors and 幡 hata, a flag used for Buddhist ceremonies.

However, legend says that one evening on the 7th, when preparing to welcome the spirits of the ancestors during the Obon ceremonies, the kanji 七夕 was pronounced “Tanabata” for the first time and it remained so since.

Two stars in love: The romantic legend of the Star Festival

The legend has its origins in China and is a mix of the Japanese folklore tale of the female weavers called Tanabatatsume 棚機津女, and the Chinese Star Festival called the Qixi Festival.

The story follows the princess of the Heavens, Orihime 織姫, who lived by the Milky Way (天の川 amanogawa) and a hard-working young cowherd, called Hikoboshi 彦星 who lived on the other side of Amanogawa.

Orihime made beautiful kimonos and she was very skilled at weaving, however because of how busy she was working, she had no time for finding love. Seeing her daughter sad, her father, the god of the heavens, allowed her to meet with Hikoboshi.

The two fell in love, got married, and ended up being so enraptured with each other, playing from morning to night, that they started to neglect their duties. Orihime stopped weaving and Hikoboshi’s cows were so thin that they fell ill one after the other.

Orihime’s father got angry, so he initially forbade the two from meeting each other, separating them on either side of the Amanogawa. However, seeing how depressed his daughter was after she was separated from Hikoboshi, he let the star-struck couple meet once a year on July 7, the seventh day of the seventh month, which corresponds to the celebration of Tanabata.

Wishes during Tanabata

Bamboo ornaments are indispensable for the celebration. Making these decorations from bamboo during the Tanabata festival dates back to the Edo Period. Bamboo is a symbol of vitality because it has very strong roots, grows extremely fast and it is believed that its hollow interior allows gods to dwell inside.

During the Star Festival, people write their wishes on paper cards that are strung on bamboo branches. At the end of the festival, the wishes, together with the branches are burnt so that the wishes will become true.

During this splendid festival, you will see numerous wish cards, with drawings, poems and lyrics containing thoughts, whimsical and serious wishes, all of them bringing color and brightness to the festival, and inspiring everyone with hope for a better tomorrow.

Read more stories from grape Japan.

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© grape Japan

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1 Comment
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Concise and very helpful.

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