Cultural Kotoba: Tanabata

cultural_kotoba_tanabata

Tanabata is just around the corner (in some parts of Japan anyway), and it might be one of my favourite celebrations in Japan.

Tanabata is not a national holiday, but it is widely celebrated around the country. To me, this festival is truly a sign that summer has arrived. I just love the colourful celebrations at Tanabata, so decided to write a bit about it today.

Where does Tanabata originate from?

One of the things I was curious about is why Tanabata is written in Japanese as 七夕. 七 is normally read as しち・なな (shichi/nana) and 夕 is normally read as ゆう (yuu), so where did the name Tanabata come from?

Actually, what we now know as Tanabata was a festival called Qixi originating in China and was brought to Japan in the 8th century. Tanabata is thought to originally refer to a special cloth (棚機・たなばた) offered to a god to pray for a good harvest of rice crops in a separate ritual. The timing of this offering coincided with Qixi, and so the two festivals merged. Once merged, the festival was still called tanabata but the kanji used was written as (七夕; meaning “evening of the seventh”) referring to the timing of the festival, which at one point was read as しちせき (shichiseki).

The timing of Tanabata is based on the traditional Japanese calendar; it is usually celebrated on the 7th night on the 7th month (ie. 7th July in the Gregorian calendar). However it can be celebrated during early August; during Japan’s transition from the Chinese lunar calendar to the current Gregorian calendar, the definition of the first month can vary by over 4 weeks and so August is sometimes treated as the 7th month in the calendar.

The Story of Tanabata

The Tanabata story is based on the Chinese folk tale “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”. Here is my rough summary of the story:

Orihime ((織姫・おりひめ), literally “weaving princess”) lives by the Milky Way and works everyday weaving fabric. Because of her work, she doesn’t really have time to meet anyone and so her father, the Sky King(also known as Tentei/ 天帝・てんてい), arranges for her to meet Hikoboshi ((彦星・ひこぼし), the cow herder) who works on the other side of the Milky Way. They fall in love immediately and get married, but they also begin to neglect their work duties.

The Sky King is angry about this and takes his daughter back to the other side of the Milky Way as punishment. Orihime is extremely upset and pleads with her father to let her see Hikoboshi. The Sky King then agrees that they can meet on the 7th day of the 7th month every year as long as Orihime works hard.

If you want to try reading the story in simple Japanese, you can find it on the children’s story website Hukumusume here.

The celebration is therefore of the one night in the year when husband and wife are allowed to meet. Having said that, it is thought that the star-crossed lovers can only meet if the weather is clear on July 7th!

How is Tanabata celebrated?

Laika_ac_Tanabata_Wishes_(7472067930)

By Laika ac from USA (Tanabata Wishes) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

It is customary to write wishes on small strips of paper known as tanzaku (短冊・たんざく) which are then hung on bamboo along with other colourful decorations. Bamboo is culturally significant because it is a strong and durable plant and therefore symbolises prosperity.

Other decorations include:

  • Paper cranes known as 折鶴 (おりづる・oridzuru) which represent longevity
  • 吹き流し (ふきながし・fukinagashi) – these are streamers meant to represent the threads that Orihime weaves.
  • 網飾り(あみかざり・amikazari) – decorations that represent fishing nets. These are used to wish for an abundance of fish.
  • Purse or pouch shaped origami to wish for good luck with money
TanabataFestival_-_Panoramio_55635202.jpg

By rinia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52729862

The city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture is well known for its Tanabata celebrations, and lots of tourists flock there to enjoy the event. It is customary in Sendai to eat 素麺 (そうめん・soumen), a type of noodles usually served cold with a dipping sauce which makes it a refreshing meal in the summertime.

If you want to test your understanding of Tanabata in Japanese, JapanesePod101 have done a great video outlining Tanabata and its customs (recommended for intermediate learners and up!).

What is your favourite national holiday or festival (in Japan, or another country)? Please leave me a comment!

0 thoughts on “Cultural Kotoba: Tanabata

  1. seraphsun says:

    Thanks for sharing this! This post reminded me when I was first learning about tanabata and writing on the strip of coloured paper to make a wish when I was learning Japanese in a cultural exchange program in Osaka almost 10 years ago. What a wonderful time it was. Oddly, I still haven’t tried soumen, though I have been meaning to. Maybe this weekend!

    • kotobites says:

      I’m glad you liked the post! I’ve only tried soumen once, I did enjoy it though – it’s super refreshing on a hot summer’s day 🙂

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