Tanabata, the Festival of the Stars

The Story Behind the Celebration of Tanabata

     Tanabata which is also known as the Star Festival is a Japanese festival. It's origins are believed to stem from the Chinese Qixi Festival.

Tanabata is the celebration of two deities, Orihime whom represents the star Vega and Hikoboshi whom represents the star Altair.

    These two, Orihime and Hikoboshi were said to be lovers, which the Milky Way separated. However it was not the Milky Way itself which was determined to keep the couple apart. No, the fault rests solely at the foot of Orihime's father.

How Orihime came to meet Hikoboshi

   The most common story one may hear about Tanabata is the story revolving around Orihime and Hikoboshi.

   Orihime when written in kanji her name can be translated to mean Weaving Princess. She was the daughter of Tentei whose name when written in kanji may be translated into something along the lines of Sky King or The Universe Itself.

   Orihime was said to be a good daughter who would weave beautiul clothing by the bank of Amanogawa which when written in kanji can be translated to Milky Way or more literally heavenly river.

   Tentei adored the clothes that his daughter wove. Clothes which she worked hard on day in and day out.

   Orihime however was unhappy, for she never had a vacation. What she longed for was to be able to meet and fall in love with someone.

   Tentei, worried about his daughter decided to arrange for her to meet Hikoboshi. Hikoboshi in kanji means Cow Hearder Star. Hikoboshi is also sometimes referred to by the name Kengyuu. He lived and worked on the other side of Amanogawa.

   Once the two, Orihime and Hikoboshi met, they fell in love instantaneously and shortly afterward were wed to one another.

The Lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi, Separated

   Tentei would have been content, if not for the fact that once the two were wed, Orihime would no longer weave clothes. Furthermore Hikoboshi allowed his cows to wander all over Heaven. It was for this that Orihime's father, Tentei decided to separate the lovers across the Amanogawa and forbade them to meet.

Orihime's Fahter Tenteis' Ultimatum

    Tentei later saw his daughters despondency at the loss of her husband and was persuaded by her tears and her plea to let her and Hikoboshi meet again that he allowed it. However Tentei was not very generous, for in a single year the two were only allowed to meet on the seventh day of the seventh month. However that was only if Orihime would work hard and finish her weaving.

   Driven by her desire to see her husband, Orihime managed to finish her weaving and went to see Hikoboshi.

   Unfortunately when they saw each other across the river, Amanogawa they found their was no bridge. They could only look longingly at each other, but could not embrace.

The Magpies to the Rescue

   Unable to get closer to her husband, Orihime began to weep. She wept so much that she attracted a flock of magpies. The magpies promised her that they would make a bridge with their wings to enable her to cross the Amanogawa (Milky Way) river.

   The two lovers were then joyously united for one day out of an entire year.

   Unfortunately, should it happen to rain on the day of Tanabata that the magpies would be unable to come and that the two lovers would then have to wait yet another year before their reunion.

This however is not the only legend of the stars Altair and Vega.

How Tanabata is Celebrated in Modern Times

    The Star Festival, Tanabata in Japan dates back to the year 755 A.D. when Empress Kouken imported it to Japan from China. It was adopted in the Kyoto Imperial Palace during the Heian Period. Over time the Star Festival (Tanabata) has become a large summer festival for those within Japan, particularly in the Tohoku region.

    It's very big in Sendai, Japan. However Sendai celebrates Tanabata on August 7th whereas several other places in Japan celebrate it instead on July 7th. It has to do with which calender the area goes by, at least in regards to festivals.

    Most, if not all natives of Nihon (Japan) celebrate Tanabata by writing wishes. These wishes are sometimes written in the form of poetry on tanzaku. Tanzaku is a type of paper, which is small and in strips. These strips of paper are then attached to bamboo as decorations. Sometimes the bamboo happens to have other decorations. This is known as a wish tree.Tanabata Wish Tree

    Sometimes the bamboo and decorations are either set afloat on the river or set fire to after the festival around midnight or the following day. This is done in hopes that Orihime and Hikoboshi will hear their wishes and make them come true.

    The reason it is so similar to the Obon festival traditions, is because originally of where they fell on the calender. The Obon Lantern Festival and Tanabata were connected as they were so close by a matter of nine days.

   There are also Tanabata Songs which are beloved by those who love the tale of the stars Altair and Vega, Hikoboshi and Orihime.

The Decorations of the Star Festival, Tanabata and their Meanings

Tanzaku: Traditionally, the colorful small strips of paper called tanzaku were used to write wishes on by boys. Typically the wishes were for good handwriting and doing well in ones studies.

Paper Kimono: Traditionally girls would wish for good sewing. The paper kimono decoration also is a wish to ward of accidents as well as illness.

Paper Crane: Paper Cranes are a part of origami and most well known even outside of Japan. However Paper Cranes are used in many other stories and traditions, such as Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Here the Paper Crane (Orizuru) decorations are used for wishes regarding family safety, health and long life.

Purse: A decoration in the shape of a purse (Kinchaku) is used when wishing for good business. It's obvious that those who use this particular decoration are looking to fill their purse with yen, the currency of Japan.

Net: Japan with much of its food source coming from the Ocean, would wish to have good fishing and good harvests. As long as there's good fishing and harvests, famine would be averted. The net (Toami) is therefore symbolic of fishing and fishermen.

Trash Bag: Those who decide to use a trash bag (Kuzukago) decoration for their wish are wishing for both cleanliness and thriftiness. One mans trash is another mans treasure so goes the old adage.

Streamers: It was streamers (Fukinagashi), or rather strings which Orihime used to weave the beautiful clothes her father loved. The streamers represent the strings she used.

On any given Tanabata since the year 1946 when an owner of a downtown Sendai shop used an ornamental ball (Kusudama) above the streamers, one can see them. However in recent years, instead of the ornamental ball one may instead see boxed-shaped ornaments which have become popular alternatives.

Why Does Tanabata Exist?

Tanabata exists, because the people who learned of it from China and imported it into Japan felt for the story of two lovers separated by the milky way, save for one day a year. Plus, people love to celebrate something and who doesn't enjoy making wishes even if little to none of them ever come true?

One thing is certain however, that without the Chinese Qixi Festival, Tanabata itself would not exist in Japan.

Sometimes one cultural really can influence another. Tanabata, the Star Festival is proof of that.