A Summary of Tanabata





Fig.1: Tanabata Monogatari (Tanabata)


Tanabata (see fig. 1) is a traditional Japanese festival.   It is observed on July 7, or in some locales, August 7.   Tanabata is a star festival which celebrates the meeting of two stars.   The Weaver Star and the Cowherd Star are believed to be lovers who can meet only once a year on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month (This date later changed).   They are separated by the Milky Way.   Tanabata story is a combination of Chinese traditions with beliefs peculiar to Japan (Tanabata, Nippon 287).   There are some differences between Japanese Tanabata and Chinese Tanabata.   This paper will examine the legends of Tanabata, the ways of celebrating Tanabata in Japan and China , and the Japanese Tanabata festival.

Tanabata originated from a Chinese folk legend about two unlucky lovers.   Zhi Nu was the youngest of the seven daughters of the Queen of Heaven.   Her special job was to weave beautiful clouds.   A poor orphan cowherd, Niu Lang, lived by himself herding cattle.   One day, the seven daughters came down to land to bathe.   Niu Lang'fs magical cow kindly told him a way to find a beautiful and nice woman as his wife.   He went to the riverside where Zhi Nu and her sisters were bathing and, and he saw them.   He stole Zhi Nu'fs dress, so she could not find it.   Her sisters did not notice that Zhi Nu could not find her dress, so they flew back to Heaven without her.   Niu Lang came in front of her with her dress, and he asked her to marry him.   They lived happily together for several years, and they had two children.     Several years later, the Queen of Heaven discovered Zhi Nu'fs absence, and she got angry.   The Queen made Zhi Nu come back to Heaven.   Niu Lang managed to follow her into Heaven with their two children by putting the cowhide on.   However, when he was about to reach her, the Queen drew a line between them.   The line became the Milky Way.   They could not see each other.   Zhi Nu was so sad that she could not weave beautiful clouds any more.   Therefore, the Queen allowed the couple to meet once a year.   They meet on a bridge of magpies across the Milky Way on July 7 ( Shanghai ).   A rainy July 7 was said by Chinese people to be the tears with sadness of Zhi Nu and Niu Lang (En 286).


Fig. 2: Summer Triangle (Kato)


In the east of the sky, there are three bright stars (see fig. 2).   They are called the Summer Triangle.   The brightest is the bluish-white star Vega.   Next in brightness is the yellow-white Altair.   The other is white Deneb, in the Cygnus constellation, the Swan.   Chinese people believe that the star Vega, east of the Milky Way, was Zhi Nu, and at the constellation of Aquila , on the western side of the Milky Way was Niu Lang.   Once a year, at the beginning of July, the star Vega and Altair approach each other.   Imaginative people thought the stars were lovers.   They made a romantic Tanabata story (Terao 246).  

Based on Chinese legend, a star festival called Kikkoden was started in China (Waka 460).   Kikkoden was observed mainly by women on July 7 of the old Japanese calender.   They prayed to the star Vega for proficiency in sewing skills (Yamanaka 181).   They threaded five different colored strings through seven needles in the evening (Kikkoden).

The date Kikkoden was first started in China is not known, but the Chinese legend and Kikkoden were transmitted to Japan by people from China during the Nara Period (710-794) (Waka 460).   Japanese women also started to pray for proficiency in sewing skills during the Heian Period (794-1185).   In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), they also prayed for proficiency in calligraphy, music, and poems.   They also threaded five different colored strings through seven needles and offered them to the gods with alcohol, fruit, and confectionaries.   They ate thin wheat noodles to celebrate harvest on July 7 (Yamanaka 181).

The Chinese Tanabata story was merged with native Japanese legends concerning a Celestial Weaving Maiden, Tanabatatsume (Tanabata, Celebrating).   Tanabatatsume was the fashioner of clothing for the gods.   She wove clothes on the seaside.   It is believed that the word 'gTanabata'h came from her name.   The Japanese Tanabata story is as follows.

A long time ago, the god of the sky, Ten-kou, had a daughter called Orihime.   She wove clothes for Ten-kou with a special machine called a tanahata.   Ten-kou was worried because Orihime worked very hard and did nothing but weave.   Therefore, he introduced a man to her.   His name was Kengyu.   He was a cowherd.   They soon fell in love, and spent all their time together without working.   As a result, the god'fs clothes became worn out, and all the cows became sick.   Ten-kou got very angry and he stopped Orihime from meeting Kengyu by taking her to the other side of the Milky Way.   Orihime and Kengyu were so sad that they could not work.   In order to get them to work, the god decided to let them meet once a year on July 7, and then only if they worked hard.   They worked as hard as before and looked forward to seeing each other once each year (The Tanabata).

At first, Kikkoden was observed by aristocrats, but later Kikkoden became popular among the common people in towns in the Edo Period (1603-1867) (Tanaka 539).   Many people placed bamboo branches in front of their houses or in the garden to celebrate Tanabata (see fig. 3).   They decorated them with long narrow strips of colored paper, other small ornaments, and talismans.   The colors of the paper were blue, red, yellow, white, and black.   These colors came from a Chinese theory that trees, fire, soil, money, and water are the basis of creation.   The colors express these things (Tanabata, Kisetsu).   People decorated them to wish for proficiency in studying and calligraphy.   People also offered food such as corn and eggplants to wish for the rich harvest and after the harvest, appreciate the harvest.   People also expressed wishes that the sky would be clear so that the two lovers could meet.   If it is rainy on July 7, Orihime and Kengyu cannot meet over the Milky Way for high level water.   They wrote the wishes on the strips of the different colored paper and hung them on the bamboo tree (The Tanabata).   According to Japanese legend, if people use ink made of dew gathered from a taro plant when they write their wishes on the strips, their calligraphy skills would be improved (Inokuchi 335).   Placing and decorating bamboo branches on July 7 is still popular in Japan .  



Fig. 3: Tanabata (Tanabata, DAL).


Contrary to the people who wished the sky would be clear, some people in the countryside believed that a rainy July 7 was lucky.   Tanabata was close to the time of the Bon Festival, so people did things that were related to water to clean up evil before welcoming and seeing off the spirits of one'fs departed ancestors on July 7 ( Tanabata , Japan 1522).   It was called Nanukabon.   People showered water on cows, horses, and children to purify evil.   Tanabata was deeply connected with the Bon festival (Shinwa 292).  

At the end of the Tanabata Festivals, bamboo branches were thrown into a river to disposal misfortune, or were placed in rice paddies as a means of repelling insects, or as a thanks-giving offering for a bounteous harvest.   Tanabata is also connected with ancestral spirits (Inokuchi 335).   The display of bamboo branches may be connected with places for visiting ancestral spirits to reside.   The disposal in the river is rites of purification by water.   There are other rites of Tanabata, Tanabata Bune (boat) and Tanabata Ningyo (doll). These ceremonies use straw figures of man and animals sitting in small boats. Our sins and stains of evil can be transferred to these straw figures and floated away.   This kind of rites is called Nemurinagashi (floating away sleep).  

Nowadays, people write their own wishes for fulfillment of romantic aspirations.   They still wish the sky would be clear.   They rarely wish for weaving or calligraphy.   Tanabata is observed mainly by children.   People clean gravestones and polish Buddhist altar fittings (Waka460).  

Although Tanabata is a traditional festival in China , it was not common for many years.   Chinese young people began to celebrate it just in recent years (How).   In China , urban youths celebrate Tanabata as Valentine'fs Day (Traditional).   Tanabata is a holiday for love in China .   It is just for people who are in love.   Chinese girls put fruits, melons, and incense in their yards as offerings in the hopes of becoming good seamstresses and being lucky in love (The Legend).   Boyfriends and girlfriends go out for dinner, present chocolate, roses, and clocks and sometimes register their marriage on Tanabata.   Zhi Nu and Niu Lang'fs forever love of Tanabata was more suitable to Chinese people than European Valentine'fs Day.

In Japan, there are many kinds of Tanabata festivals.   Sendai Tanabata Festival and Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival are the most famous festivals.   Sendai Tanabata Festival is one of the three biggest festivals in the Touhoku district (Tanabata, Illustrated 94).   It is renowned for its gigantic colorful streamers and nice ornaments made of washi paper.   It has been held every year since 1946 ( Sendai ).   It is held from August 6 to 8, and millions of visitors flock to Sendai .   It starts on the first Friday of August and lasts until Sunday night.   On the first day, there are brass bands, majorettes, and beauty pageant queens.   The illustrations on the enormous glowing floats depict famous warrious or heros from ancient Chiba and samurai warriors from Japan .   On the second day, there are a drum festival and the Omikoshi, portable shrines, parade.   On the third day, fire works are exhibited near the Benten Bridge (Tanabata, Oita ).   The festival was encouraged by Date Masamune (1567-1636), who founded the modern-day city of Sendai .   He wanted to improve the skills and craftsmanship of women and children as well as to pray for good crops and fishing.   It was canceled during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) eras because of a depression before.   It was resumed in 1928 for the Tohoku industrial exposition in Sendai .   It was suspended again during the Pacific War (1941-1945), and it resumed in August 1946 when Emperor Showa died ( Sendai ).



Fig. 4: Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival (Shonan, Tokushoku.)


In the Kanto area, the most famous festival is the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival.   Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival is held in Hiratsuka in Kanagawa Prefecture from July 5 to 8.   It was started to encourage the shopping arcade.   Hiratsuka was destroyed in an air attack in 1945.   It was reconstructed between 1945 and 1951 and shop owners in the area began to hold this festival to encourage shopping and tourism in the area.   They hoped to make Hiratsuka well-known to the whole country.   It is now a large-scale event and 2,800,000 visitors from the whole county attended during 4 days in 2007.    The festival is famous for its huge and beautiful bamboo decorations (see fig. 4).  

There are many kinds of unique Tanabata festivals in various parts of the country (Tanabata, Illustrated 95).   Tanabata Etoro Festival is held in yuzawa in Akita Prefecture .   Huge paper lanterns painted with pictures of ukiyoe-style beauties or popular show-business personalities are displayed along the main streets.   Kesencho in Iwate Prefecture is famous for its Kenka (fight) Tanabata Festival.   The main attraction at this festival is a jostling match between festival floats decorated with tens of thousands of tanzaku, strips of paper of five different colors.   Kaijo Tanabata Festival is also famous in Iwate.   Twenty beautifully-decorated fishing boats, many bearing 20m high bamboo poles with up to 30,000 red tanzaku attached, assemble and cruise around the bay.   In Nagano Prefecture , Matsumoto-no-Tanabata is famous.   People display various Tanabata dolls made of paper, including some in the form of loving couples and some wearing children'fs kimono (Tanabata, Illustrated 94, 95).  

Tanabata was started in China , and it became very popular in Japan .   The legend of Tanabata is a little bit different between Chinese legend and Japanese one.   Chinese legend came to Japan and its story was changed.   The way of celebrating Tanabata was quite different.   There are many kinds of Tanabata Festivals in Japan .   They became one of the traditional Japanese festivals.   Tanabata is now more famous in Japan rather than in China .   It has been enjoyed by Japanese people for many years, and is still loved by them.