Celebrating Tanabata, the Star Festival

Published July 7th, 2022

Tanabata (たなばた), also known as the Star Festival (星祭り, ほしまつり), is an annual festival held throughout Japan. The holiday is traditionally celebrated on the “seventh day of the seventh month." However, this date can vary depending on the region and the use of the Gregorian calendar. Tanabata celebrations occur from July 7th through the beginning of August. The celebration began in China and came to Japan during the 8th century, but did not gain popularity until the Edo period (1603 and 1867).

The holiday is inspired by the Chinese myth known as "The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.” In the story, Orihime (Weaving Princess), wove clothing along the bank of a heavenly river (the Milky Way). Orihime was sad because she worked so hard that she was never able to find her true love. Seeing this, her father, Tentei (King of the Sky), introduced her to Hikoboshi (Star Boy). Hikoboshi, a cowherd, lived and worked on the other side of the Milky Way river. They quickly fell in love. However, their love prevented Orihime from doing her duties and Hikoboshi lost track of his cattle. Orihime’s father grew angry at their carelessness, so he split the two lovers apart, one on each side of the Milky Way. Orihime begged her father to let them meet again, so her father relented. He allowed them to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. Yet, on that night, the lovers were unable to cross the river to reach one another. When a flock of magpies saw the separated lovers, they banded together to form a bridge across the Milky Way.

The legend says that if it rains on Tanabata, then the magpies cannot form a bridge and the lovers cannot meet. So, on this day, many wish for clear skies. The lovers in the story represent Altair and Vega, two of the brightest stars in the sky.

Tanabata focuses largely on celebrating the arts. People do this with plenty of decorations made from paper and string. One of the most iconic parts of Tanabata are the tanzaku (短冊, たんざく). Tanzaku are thin strips of paper that people write their wishes on. The paper strips are then hung from the boughs of bamboo trees. Tanzaku come in five colors to represent the five elements: blue or green (wood), red (fire), yellow (earth), white (metal), and black or purple (water).

Other paper decorations include 巾着 (きんちゃく), which are shaped into small purses and symbolize wealth; 神衣 (かみごろも), tiny kimonos for sewing skills; 投網 (とあみ), nets for good fishing and harvests; 折り鶴 (おりずる), chains of paper cranes for health and longevity; and くずかご, trash bags for cleanliness. Once the festivities end, it is common to send these wishes down a nearby river or set them on fire as a way to release them.

Another common sight during Tanabata are large streamers attached to bamboo poles or hung on strings. These streamers are known as 吹き流し (ふきながし).They are each topped with large paper balls known as a kusudama (薬玉, くすだま). Long strips of washi paper hang from the kusudama and can be several meters long! Together, these paper decorations make up the seven symbols of Tanabata.

Tanabata matsuri occur throughout Japan and each region has its own customs. Even so, typical festival customs, such as fireworks, food, and entertainment, are common. The biggest and most famous Tanabata festival is the Sendai Tanabata Festival. This festival takes place in Miyagi prefecture in the Tōhoku region. At the Sendai Tanabata festival, people celebrate with the seven symbolic paper decorations. These decorations can be found in other regions, but tanzaku are by far the most common sight on Tanabata!