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Can the Tanabata Star Festival Catch Halloween?


The Tanabata Festival takes place on the 7th July.  It is one of the five “Sekku”, days that mark the change of seasons, which were made into official dates of festivities in the Edo period.  It is a beautiful summer’s star festival, which centres around the constellations of the summer sky, and the story of Orihime and Hikoboshi.

Separated by the Milky Way, allowed to meet once a year

Orihime, Vega of Lyra, was the daughter of the emperor of the sky. She had a talent for weaving beautiful fabrics. Natsuhiko, Altair of Aquil, a diligent young cow farmer, was introduced to Orihime.  They instantly fell in love and got married.

The couple was so thrilled to be together that they lost interest in their vocations, weaving and raising cows.  The emperor raged against them, separated them by the Milky Way, and made them go back to work.  But pitying his distraught daughter, he sends a flock of birds (Cygnus constellation is over the Milky Way, between Altair and Vega) once a year on the 7th July, to form a bridge across the river so that they can meet.

There are many variations to this story, becoming a favourite of theatres small and large.

On the seventh day of the month according to the Lunar Calendar, the moon is always in a waxing crescent shape. Some say this shape looks like a boat which the couple can use to cross the river. The moon goes down around midnight, making the Milky Way perfectly visible, as if it is celebrating this once a year meeting.

In the Gregorian calendar, however, the moon may sometimes be too bright to allow the Milky Way to be seen. Also, in modern cities, light pollution is making it impossible. In consequence, the star festival somewhat lost its original sparkle.

Valentine’s Day in China

In China, the origin of this story, 7th July is now branded as Lovers’ Day, an opportunity for marketing gift items, just like Valentine’s day in Japan. This time of the year is more convenient in China, as 14th February often coincides with Chinese New Year.

But in Japan, Tanabata is very muted compared to the other four Sekku festive days. With the romantic background story and night sky associated with it, there could be much more potential to enjoy the occasion.

What exactly do you do on Tanabata Day?

The religious festival starts around 1:00 am on the 7th of July when the moon disappears, and the main constellation is at the helm of the night sky.  People write their wishes, traditionally things associated with achievements in vocational skills such as weaving, on a strip of paper and attached to a bamboo branch (believed to be mosquito repellent), a custom only seen in Japan. The bamboo and the wishes should be washed out into the rivers and ocean in the morning.

In modern days, malls usually decorate shop fronts with bamboo and colourful paper strips.  But with no unique feast, there is nothing to promote. Attempts have been made to promote paired-up sweets (one for male, the other for female), and to decorate them with stars and glitter. Some are trying to re-brand the day as a Summer Valentine.

But so far, all attempts to turn this beautiful evening into a marketing opportunity have been to no avail. Halloween and Easter have been identified as significant events in the year, with significant collaboration between big players in the entertainment industry, leaving the unfortunate Tanabata Festival behind.

Ancient Festival – Hurdles to Clear

The biggest hurdle may be that the story of Orihime and Hikoboshi is too out of date.  This fairy tale is widely known to all Japanese children, and the message does not hit the right chord with modern lifestyles.  Though beautiful, it is not a situation you want to be in or would sympathise with.

On a practical level, the weather at this time of year– it is at the end of the rainy season on the newly introduced Gregorian calendar – the lack of bamboo at a reasonable price and unclear guidance on disposal options are putting people off.

Christmas trees in Japan are almost all artificial, and are hence reusable. Bamboo used for religious rituals may be dumped with other rubbish, as it cannot be washed out to the waters due to local regulations, and so appear to do offence to Gods whose favours you have just sought. Finally, people don’t want their wishes and dreams to be visible to others.

For all these wrong reasons, Tanabata struggles to make a breakthrough. Festivals in early August, which stuck with the lunar calendar, are thriving and are well attended, even from abroad.

It may be time to go back to the original calendar, and to customs of enjoying the evening sky of the original lunar 7th July. Tanabata is one event that demands one follows the lunar calendar.  It is time to look at the origin and think creatively, to come up with a breakthrough that retains important elements of the tradition.


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