Summer is here, and one of the most important things about summer in Japan is hanabi! Hanabi means “fireworks” in Japanese. It is written using the characters for “flower” and “fire.” We enjoy watching fireworks at summer festivals, and having fun with sparklers with family and friends.
I love watching fireworks. From a closer distance, it’s a more sensory experience. The boom of the explosion, the sudden brightness, vivid colors, smoke, and crackles as the sparks spread across the night sky! Even the silence takes on a presence once the show comes to an end.
From far away, the delay between color and sound is like lightning and thunder. The fireworks are smaller, but they blend together with the scenery to highlight the landscape. I think it’s yet another way to enjoy them.
So today, I would like to write about Japanese fireworks.
In Japan, summer fireworks have a deeper meaning than just entertainment. The “Bon” holiday happens in the middle of August. We believe that departed souls return to their family during this holiday, so we build a fire as a beacon to guide their souls back to this world. Once Bon is over, we send them off with prayers as they return to the afterlife. Some people say that fireworks serve this same purpose. There is a story of one shogun who sent off the souls of those who lost their lives to disease and famine with a fireworks display.
Aesthetically, Japanese appreciate fireworks’ homogeneousness and symmetricalness, so many Japanese fireworks are round like chrysanthemums and peonies. Firework artisans place immense importance on creating round, homogeneous “hoshi.” In Japanese, “hoshi” usually means star, but here it’s used for the explosive parts of the firework. Setting expertly crafted hoshi around a sphere creates a beautiful, flowerlike pattern that is appreciated not only for its colors, but as an expression of the artisan’s skill.
Here is a video from YouTube about Japanese fireworks making. It is in Japanese but you can still see how Japanese fireworks are made, as well as the artisan’s skill. If you watch it, pay particular attention to their motions, as they have honed their technique for years. You can also turn on Youtube’s translations in your language if you’d like.
During summer, especially July and August, there is a fireworks festival every weekend somewhere in Japan. Many people attend wearing yukata, traditional Japanese clothing for summer. (A yukata is like a thin kimono.) Fireworks festivals usually have many stands with food and games, so you will see people wearing yukata waiting in line for treats like shaved ice, one of the more popular festival eats.
In Japan, people can sponsor fireworks. They “buy the rights” to an individual or a group of fireworks, and an announcer reads a message when they are launched. Some people use them to show their gratitudes to loved ones. Some festivals are even competitions where fireworks artisans compete with each other to create the best display.
Many festivals have been cancelled recently because of the pandemic. However, if you have a chance to visit Japan in the future, visiting a fireworks festival will be a great experience. Don’t miss the chance to wear a yukata, either!