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Goin’ Japanesque!

Why Have Fireworks in the Summer? Japanese Sentiments and Traditions

Japanese fireworks or hanabi is now said to be the most beautiful in the world and it is exported to about 20 countries worldwide. It is said though that there is a longer history of fireworks and gunpowder in Europe and China. In Japan hanabi has been deeply intertwined with culture and tradition and came to be enjoyed as it is in the present-day hanabi festival.

When we hear of “fireworks” overseas, there is the sense that they are associated with some kind of celebration such as a New Year’s count-down or the July 4th Independence Day celebrations in the U.S. What’s special about Japanese hanabi is that there are “hanabi-taikai” or special events to enjoy the hanabi alone. I always look forward to going to see hanabi in my yukata in the summer time :)

Check out this article if you have not yet seen Japanese hanabi before. We introduce  hanabi-taikai (festival) that are famous in Japan. 
Three Great Hanabi Festivals To Go This Summer + Miyajima Water Fireworks Festival

So why do we have hanabi only in the summer time? Reading this article, I think you will see that there is actually a purpose along with Japanese sentiments behind this. 


Hanabi as an Expression of Beauty

It is said that the first person to have seen hanabi in Japan is Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). Since then, hanabi has become super popular. Hanabi has been prohibited many times due to the fires it has caused. But when you think about the numerous times they had to give out the order, you can see how much the people continued doing it even after it was prohibited and how popular it was!

The spark of the hanabi in the old days was red-orange in color. When you look at the ukiyo-e, hanabi is depicted in one color, in red-orange. It seems that around the Meiji Restoration, various colorants were imported from overseas. The pursuit for beauty has influenced people to look for a way to create multi-colored hanabi.

Pursuing “beauty” in hanabi is perhaps specific to Japan. In other countries, it seems like people are looking to see loud sounds and the power of explosion, similar to the excitement of seeing a rocket being shot up in the sky. Though they are grouped in the same “fireworks” category, they seem like two completely different things. It is said that in countries like Italy and Spain, people get upset and complain if they don’t hear the loud sounds of explosion.  

The sounds the Japanese hanabi makes may not be as loud as the ones overseas but the Japanese hanabi also uses “sound” as a method of expression. If you have seen a Japanese hanabi, you may have heard the sharp whistling sound when the fireworks go up. This is due to a whistling device that is actually put in the firework to create the sound.

See here for an example:

The whistling sound, silence…boom! By using the whistling sound in this way, a moment of silence is created between the light and sound. By emphasizing this silent moment, it draws the viewers attention, and generates anticipation toward what is happening next. This “space” is an aesthetic specific to Japan. This concept is incorporated for example in haiku poetry or even when making a Japanese garden. This kind of intention shows that hanabi is not just a fun entertainment but an art in itself.


Reasons for Having Hanabi in the Summer

Hanabi of the 8th Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune

In 1733, the Shogun Yoshimune ordered for several fireworks to be shot up by the current Sumidagawa River (called Ryogoku Okawa at the time). This was done at the timing of “kawabiraki (opening of the river)” to console the spirits of the deceased and to ward off the evil spirits. The reason for this order was because in the previous year, there were numerous deaths due to famine and cholera. Since then, it has become tradition to shoot hanabi on the first day of the kawabiraki. The Sumidagawa Hanabi-Taikai also has its roots here.  

To Enjoy the Cool of the Evening

So, I mentioned that Tokugawa Yoshimune’s hanabi was held on the first day of the kawabiraki. What then is the kawabiraki?

The kawabiraki was the period between May 28th to August 26th of the lunar calendar when people gathered by the river to escape the heat. We do not hear of the word kawabiraki nowadays, but similar to umibiraki (the beach) and yamabiraki (the mountain), what it basically means is that it’s a declaration to say “we will start the season of having fun by the river”.

During the kawabiraki period, business for hotels on boats or restaurants facing the river were bustling. People would go out on the river in boats, eat and drink by the river and hold parties to escape the heat. Throughout the summer in Edo, people would stay by the river to keep cool and the Ryogoku-bashi Bridge was filled with excitement.

To provide some entertainment for the guests during this time, the restaurants and teahouses in the Ryogoku area all contributed towards shooting up hanabi. It seems that the custom of watching the hanabi during the hot summers was born out of this tradition of having hanabi during the kawabiraki season, an event to escape the heat. I can see how gazing at the reflection of the beautiful hanabi on the river surface can help take your mind off the summer heat.

The Obon Okuribi

Obon generally refers to the period between August 13th to August 16th and it is the period when the “ancestral spirits come back to visit us”. During this period “fire” holds a very important meaning. On the 13th, we burn a fire to welcome the spirits of the ancestors (mukaebi) and on the 16th, we burn a fire to see them off when they depart (okuribi). The Kyoto Daimonji and Toro Nagashi (Lantern Festival) is also considered a form of okuribi. Similarly, the hanabi also had a purpose of seeing the ancestral spirits off, as a form of okuribi. You see that we still have many hanabi festivals that are held in August around obon,


How to Enjoy the Hanabi

How to Tell a Good Hanabi from a Bad Hanabi

When you see many different hanabi in one summer, you start to feel like some kind of hanabi expert. I want to give you tips on how you differentiate a successful hanabi from an unsuccessful one. Once you know, you may have more fun when you’re at a hanabi festival.

  1. Suwari- This refers to the timing the firework opens up. The ideal timing is that is goes all the way up in the sky and opens right as it is falling. Then you can say that the hanabi was “suwari ga yokatta (good suwari)”.
  2. Bon- How does the hanabi open up? It is said to be better when the Hoshi (the ball of gunpowder that emits color or light) is bigger and complete. Also, the distance between the hoshi must also be even so they are neatly lined up.
  3. Kata- Are the hoshi all scattering in unison? Are there any missing hoshi or any stray hoshi? There shouldn’t be any.
  4. The hoshi should all open up at once, their luminosity should be even, and are the lights and colors changing in unison. The ones with beautiful illumination are considered to be good and the biggest appeal of the hanabi. Also, when the fire goes out, it is ideal for the light to disappear at once as if they were blown out.


The Calls

When you are watching hanabi, you may see some people calling out “taa ma yaaaa”. This comes from the company names of the hanabi-shi (pyrotechnics) who were shooting up the hanabi during kawabiraki in the old days. At that time, there was the Tamaya and Kagiya who shot up hanabi alternately from both sides of the river. The crowd will yell out the names of the companies to say one company was “more beautiful” or “more spectacular”. So, it would also be alright to say “Kaaaa gi yaaa” but they say that Tamaya was the “hands-down” crowd pleaser of this time. In fact, it is said that Tamaya were the ones that succeeded in making the red-orange hanabi into multi-colored hanabi. 


Why Japanese Love Hanabi So Much

In the character “hana (flower)” of hanabi, there is the underlying meaning that they “bloom for a very short moment and come to an end”, just like flowers. In fact the names of individual hanabi are named after flowers like “kiku (chrysanthemum)” and “botan (peony)”.

The Japanese have an aesthetic that values things that fade away when the time comes. The same reason Japanese love cherry blossoms. It is kind of symbolic that the senko-hanabi, a dainty sparkler, is the best seller out of hanabi. Life is often compared to a flower, but when you compare the senko-hanabi to life itself, you really feel the preciousness of life. There is a vivid and blooming youth which quietly fades away after a short moment.  

Also, the movie that became worldly famous, “Hana-bi” by filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. There is a scene in the movie where they use hanabi but… if you think about the Japanese sentiment toward hanabi, you will see that there is a deeper meaning to the title.


So, I guess the reason for having hanabi festivals in the summer was not just a simple and practical answer like “it would be too cold to have fireworks in the winter”. Lol. Doesn’t it feel like the fireworks look even more beautiful when you understand the purpose behind them and the reasons they are held in the summer time? Wear your yukata, go out to a hanabi festival, eat some shaved ice, and keep cool during the hot summer days in Japan!

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About the author

Kimi is a Japanese living in Tokyo. She has spent half her life living overseas in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Her hobbies are traveling, eating, drinking and beautifying. She enjoys yoga and has a daily goal of running 6.5 km to offset her love of beer and junk food.

View all articles by Kimi