Japanese Culture Teaching Notes



July 7 is the Weaver Star Festival (Tanabata).

The Chinese legend has it that Altair (the Cowherd Star) and Vega (the Weaver Star) were split apart by the two banks of the River of Heaven (the Milky Way), Ama-no-gawa, and come together once a year on this night.

There once was a brave young Shepherd named Altair, and a princess, the Weaver-girl Vega, who so loved each other they neglected their work. This angered the Emperor of the Heavens, who separated them by a river, the Milky Way, where on only one night each year, July 7th, a magical bridge is formed on the wings of Magpies and the two are allowed to cross and be together. If it rains on the night of July 7th, it is said that the river overflows and they cannot meet again until next year.

This legend was probably imported from China in the Heian Era (794-1185), and its associated Tanabata Festival has developed through the centuries. The story involves the stars of Vega and Altair and their apparent proximity to the Milky Way.

A Japanese version of this tale is:
Members of royalty were, of course, associated with the heavens; Tentei (the emperor) being centered at the North Pole. One day, the emperor's daughter, Orihime, was sitting beside the river of heaven (Milky Way). She had been weaving because her father, the emperor loved the beautiful clothes that she made. On this particular day, she was very sad because she realized that she had been so busy that she didn't have time to fall in love. Her father, Tentei, the ruler of the heavens, felt sorry for her and arranged a marriage with Kengyuu (who lived across the river, the Milky Way). Their marriage was one of sweetness and happiness from the start; and everyday thereafter they grew happier and happier. But Tentei became very angry, because in spending so much time in her happy marriage, Orihime was neglecting her weaving. Tentei decided to separate the couple, so he placed them back in their original places, separated by the Milky Way. On only one night of the year would he allow them to meet, the 7th day of the 7th month. Every year on that day, from the mouth of the river (the Milky Way), the boatman (of the moon) comes to ferry Orihime over to her beloved Kengyuu. But if Orihime has not done her weaving to the best of her skills and ability, Tentei may make it rain. When it rains, the boatman will not come (because the river is flooded). However, in such a case, Kasasagi (a group of magpies) may still fly to the Milky Way to make a bridge for Orihime to cross.

In Japan, the star Vega is often called Orihime Boshi (Weaving Princess Star), and Altair is often called Kengyuu Boshi or Hiko Boshi (Puller of Cows Star).

When it was first recognized in Japan, Tanabata was celebrated only by imperial court officials. It was considered a graceful event, full of the simple elegance so associated with the Heian era of Japan. Lanterns were lighted, and poems were written on mulberry leaves still holding their dew. Of course, as the custom spread to local areas, towns became covered with bamboo at Tanabata, and the festival took on more of the values inherent in Japanese consciousness and purpose.
Several days before July 7, people write their wishes or poems on strips of poetry paper in various colors, and hang them on leafy bamboo; then on the night of the 7th, they are put out in the garden. These are attractive enough to be called summer Christmas trees.

Wishes may be for increased skills in work or school (reflecting specific vitalistic and optimistic values) but may also be for anything that reflects a person's dreams and hopes for the future. Summer vegetables such as eggplant and cucumbers are prepared, and horse or cow figures made out of straw and water oats are decorated. While the myth probably held seasonal significance in its Chinese origins, specifically the celebration of the end of the rainy season (reflected in a desire that it not rain), it found a variety of interpretations related to seasonality in its Japanese form. Particularly in relation to agricultural development in Japan, "wishes" related to celebrations of Tanabata ranged from desire for dry weather to desire for wet weather depending on the particular geographic region and whether a crop was to be planted or harvested at this time.

Colored threads are also hung on the bamboo branches. The custom of decorating a bamboo arose from the belief that if you wrote poems of proverbs on strips of paper and offered them to the stars, you would acquire good penmanship skills.

Following Shinto practice and ancient values, the concept of purification (generally including use of water) before the Bon festival (centered on the 15th day of the 7th month) was also added to the Tanabata festival. In eastern parts of Japan, an associated ritual called Nebuta was celebrated. On the early morning of Tanabata, bamboo would be set afloat in the river, and people would brush their bodies with leaves from "silk" trees. By doing so, they were said to take their sleepiness (nebuta) away. The close relation of Tanabata to the indigenous Bon Festival has obviously led to a number of adaptations of the imported Chinese mythology. In short, one makes the coming of the Bon festival sacred by excluding impure spirits from the body at the first quarter moon, thus being pure for the coming of Bon at full moon. It is interesting that in some regions of Japan, Tanabata is accompanied by a taboo forbidding swimming or bathing in a river. Noting the relation with the celestial "river" or milky way, the taboo is based on the idea that a Kappa or water deity resides in the river, and one should not make the pure water dirty by entering the water deity's home.

The process of adapting this imported legend and developing indigenous practices evolved in complex ways over the centuries, In modern times, the festival is generally celebrated on a solar July 7th, a date that is generally still within the rainy season. Sadly, the festival has lost much of its seasonal significance with modern industrialization. Of course, the ethic of improved work and skill is still valued, regardless of whether or not the day of celebration is attuned astronomically.


In Nagano they celebrate Tanabata on August 6th, which is one month and one day after Tanabata. They make big Tanabata paper dolls and put their children's kimono on them. They hang it on their houses and pray for their children's health and long life.

In Kyoto they celebrate Tanabata in the Shiramine temple. The girls make Nishijin-ori (one of the Japanese traditional ways of making kimono cloth) wear Nishijin-ori clothes and dance around the village. Young girls hope that their handicraft will be as beautiful as the Weaver Princess Star.

In the middle part of the Edo period, the Kengo monk said "On Tanabata, the Spirit leaves heaven and will go home. The Jizo* will go to heaven and greet the spirit. So bring your home spirits and pray!" So that is what they do in Kagoshima.

Many people from the city dance and play music in a Tanabata parade in Miyagi. There are also flower cars and there are people twirling sticks. Their parade is very attractive.

Posted by ・Andrea :: 11:25 PM :: 0 Comments:

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