Tanabata, also known as the “Star festival”, takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year, when the two star-crossed lovers, who are, incidentally according to legend, also the star deities Altair and Vega, usually separated from each other by the Milky way, and who are able to meet only at this time of the year. The festival can be celebrated on July 7th on either the Gregorian calendar or lunar one, depending on the region. This year, the lunar day falls on August 9th on the regular solar calendar. The festival event traditionally took place shortly after risshu or the beginning of autumn, which follows the end of the tsuyu rainy season.
Most Japanese are acquainted with the Tanabata story and festival from childhood, or from preschool classrooms where tanzaku (短冊)decorations are hung from a bamboo branches — tanzaku are narrow strips of colorful paper or streamers which have a child’s goal or wish written on each strip. The tanzaku are often hung with other decorations, like on Wish Trees. The bamboo and decorations are often set afloat on a river or burned after the festival, around midnight or on the next day They are a common sight in individual homes as well, and as seasonal decor seen in shopping malls, restaurants, public libraries and other communal spaces.
Origins of Tanabata
One of Japan’s five traditional seasonal festivals, or gosekku, Tanabata originated from China where it is known as the Qixi Festival which has a longer history dating back to the early 3rd c. A.D. and where it is traceable to Chinese literary references to the legend of romantic love between two stars named Kengyu (cowherd) and Shokujo (weaver girl), who are able to meet once a year on July 7th on the Chinese lunar calendar.
The legend arrived in Japan in the late 7th or by early 8th c. — evidence of this is found in the Manyoshu anthology which carries about 130 Tanabata poems. The Manyoshu or “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves” was compiled sometime after 759 AD during the Nara period 710-794 AD (but the bulk of the collection represents the period between AD 600 and 759). Tanabata was first celebrated in Japan by aristocrats of the ancient imperial court in the form of poetry contests … the aristocrats would write verses as they gazed up at the stars.
During the Nara period, Tanabata is thought to have been transmitted in the form of a weaving festival for young women wishing to show off or improve their talents on the loom. Tanabata is thus associated with kikoden which was an event for women aspiring for excellence in weaving, or skills in singing and playing musical instruments. This association is hardly surprising as the festival marks the meeting between Orihime (Vega), who is the gifted weaver star and patron of silk farming, and Hikoboshi (Altair), the hardworking cowherd who presumably, like many nomadic herders, plays an instrument. According to the folktale, Orihime and Hikoboshi, began to neglect their duties upon being wed, thus incurring the wrath of the bride’s father Tentei, Emperor of Heaven (also the North Pole deity). The pair were consequently exiled to opposite ends of the Milky Way. They are, however, granted a meeting each July 7 so long as they both diligently fulfill their celestial obligations during the other days of the year.
The Chinese folktale then merged with the indigenous Japanese legend of tanabata-tsume, the tale of a celestial maiden who weaves clothes for the gods, as well as other native cultural aspects to produce a unique Chinese-infused Japanese tradition.
The festival likely also involved the transmission of calendrical or early timepiece devices and astronomical knowledge for the purposes of agriculture as the event centers on the stars Vega and Altair in the constellations Lyra and Aquila, respectively. See Renshaw and Ihara on this.
Only in the Edo period (1603–1868) did the star festival become observed by commoners as well. In the late 17th and 18th c, students of terakoya (temple schools) started attaching to bamboo branches the long narrow strips of paper called tanzaku. Only back then the paper bore their poems dedicated to Cowherd-Kengyu and Weavergirl-Shokujo instead of an individual’s wishes and dreams. These traditional decorations and talismans including colorful streamers called fukinagashi that represent threads for those wanting to be better weavers and gossamer amikazari symbolizing wishes by fishermen for full nets…have since been handed down to present-day Japanese who celebrate the event with their offerings to the stars.
In the past, to ensure that wishes would be granted, ornament-laden bamboo branches were placed in rivers to be carried away by the current. Why bamboo? Bamboo is thought to have become a part of the tanabata tradition for its propensity to grow straight and tall, with upward stretching branches bearing wishes to heaven on the wind. The plant was also believed to ward off insects and was displayed to protect rice crops and symbolize hopes of a bountiful harvest.
In some regions, the event is also commonly thought to be merged with or associated with o-Bon rituals. One of the Tōhoku region’s most exhuberant celebrations, the Nebuta Festival, is also associated with the star festival. The parade of intricate illuminated floats in this event is thought to have begun as a purification ritual where participants got rid of their nebuta or sleepiness by rubbing against the bamboo branches released into the rivers and sea (or with lanterns) on the evening of Tanabata.
The timing of Tanabata celebrations varies from region to region. When Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1872, the Star festival was marked as falling on July 7. However, many areas still rely on traditional reckonings to schedule festivities, with observances normally falling sometime in August. Because the 7th month of the year roughly coincides with August rather than July according to the formerly used lunar calendar, Tanabata is still celebrated on August 7th in some regions of Japan, while it is celebrated on July 7th in other regions.
Three of the largest Tanabata festivals are the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri in Miyagi Prefecture, the Shōnan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri in Kanagawa Prefecture, and the Anjo Tanabata Matsuri in Aichi Prefecture. The festivals are major tourist attractions.
A cultural history of astronomy by Steven Renshaw and Ihara Kaori
Orihime, Kengyuu, and Tanabata Adapting Chinese Lore to Native Beliefs and Purposes by Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara June, 1999
[An early version of this article appeared in Appulse; Bulletin for the Philippine Astronomical Society, Vol. 9, #8, August, 1996.
Hearn, Lafcadio (1905). The romance of the Milky Way, and other studies & stories. Houghton Mifflin and company.
Play the Tanabata song here.
Chinese legend adopted differently from area to area (Japan through the Five Senses series, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 2016) by Prof. Naoyuki Ogawa, Kokugakuin University