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Japan's Enduring Fireworks Tradition Lives On

August 6, 1999

A midsummer extravaganza along the Sumida River. (Taito City Office)

No summer in Japan would be complete without fireworks. Japanese hanabi (fireworks), which many argue are the world's most gorgeous and elaborate, are famous for their perfect roundness and harmoniously blended, multicolored layers that blossom out into the night sky. Each year in July and August fireworks festivals are held throughout Japan. This summer some 122 are scheduled for the greater Tokyo region alone.

A Long History
Fireworks, which were invented in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907), reached Europe by way of the Silk Road. Japan's first brush with hanabi is said to have occurred in 1613, when they were introduced to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu by an envoy of the British monarchy. In the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868) hanabi became favorite entertainment of daimyo (landholding military lords) and wealthy merchants, who would order displays from firework makers and enjoy the performances from their boats. In 1733 Shogun Yoshimune organized a fireworks display along the Sumida River to pay respects to the many people who died of a terrible famine the previous year and to ward off evil spirits. This was the start of the renowned Ryogoku River Festival.

At festivals around Japan spectators can often be heard calling out "Tamaya!" "Kagiya!" These cheers refer to the names of the two families that became the biggest hanabi producers during the Edo period and catapulted the Ryogoku River Festival into the nation's biggest display of fireworks. At the first festival in 1733 the Tamaya family set off some 20 rockets that created a sensation. In 1810 the Kagiya clan branched off from the Tamaya, resulting in an annual battle for hanabi supremacy that became a favorite event for the Edo public. From the Taisho (1912-26) through the Showa (1926-89) eras, well-known firework makers began surfacing throughout Japan and, as hanabi-making techniques improved, the country's fireworks gradually acquired their own unique flavor.

Old-World Tradition
The Ryogoku River Festival of the Edo period has since come to be known as the Sumida River Fireworks Festival. It is the biggest fireworks display in the greater Tokyo area, where more than 20,000 rockets are launched annually from the Sumida River, which flows along the eastern part of Tokyo, including Ryogoku. The most thrilling part of the festival is a competition among 10 manufacturers--7 local and 3 from other parts of the country whose displays have received critical acclaim--that never fails to dazzle the crowd.

Many spectators wear traditional garments like yukata (summer kimono) and happi (festival outerwear) to the event, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the Edo period. The display, which last year attracted some 800,000 spectators, is immensely popular, so staking out a good viewing spot can be a challenge. The festival is also broadcast live on television every year.

Stadium Extravaganza
The Jingu Gaien Fireworks Festival held at a large baseball stadium in central Tokyo last year attracted some 1 million spectators. This event is popular because it allows viewers to take in the display as they would a baseball night game. Each year reserved seats are sold out within about one week after tickets go on sale. Before the hanabi are set off, live music performances are held, creating a festival-like atmosphere. Viewers also gather at nearby stadiums to take in the spectacle.

Among the many other summer firework events are the Chiba City Fireworks Festival, which features a computer-controlled extravaganza synchronized to music, and the Tokyo Hanabi Festival and Yokohama's International Fireworks Festival, where the rockets are launched from the sea. Scores of magazine guides to these events line the shelves of bookstores during the hanabi season, ensuring an explosive summer for all.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.