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Hanabi – Flowers in the Night Sky


On 26th July, approximately 850,000 spectators gathered around the Sumida River in Tokyo to admire the spectacle of the Hanabi showcase.  Hanabi, a firework display, is the people’s favourite event during the summer holiday.

Firecrackers Turned to Artistic Display

There are many websites dedicated to providing a live weather update for more than 1,000 venues across Japan.  They draw huge crowds, especially Yukata-wearing young people with smart cameras, to enjoy the evenings, and share the beautiful night sky with friends, offline and online.

Fireworks originated in China as early as 300 BC.  It was a simple mixture of chemicals and was used as a signal fire for communication purposes. Further developments saw them evolve into weapons, which were similar to firecrackers by the mid 12th century.  They were exported to Europe and developed further into powerful weapons.

In the late 14th century, they were first used in Christian ceremonies in Florence, Italy and from there spread across Europe as fire displays for viewing.

Japan saw guns used by Mongolians in 1274, but none of those brought in by Chinese empires was threatening.  Two Portuguese castaways introduced the first modern guns in 1543.  This historic incident opened up interest in European products, and trade and cultural exchange commenced.

The firework display was one of them.  There are two theories about who might have seen it first:  It was either Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Shogun, or Masamune Date, the powerful warlord from Northern Japan, in the late 16th to early 17th century.

The fireworks – now called Hanabi – became popular very quickly.

Hanabi – Flowers in the Night Sky

In 1733, commissioned by Shogun to mourn people affected by a Cholera epidemic in the previous year, spectacular Hanabi displays marked the “Opening” of the summertime at  Sumida River for the first time.  Between the end of spring and late summer, the bars and restaurants around the river were allowed to open longer up to midnight (usually they had to close at sunset).

The Hanabi display, with its big bang was a fitting opening to lift everyone’s spirit.

Beauty Not Only for the Living

Firework displays still light up the night skies in the summer in Japan.  It is not only because of the success of Sumida River, but it was also for religious reasons.

The period from 13th to 16th August is called OBON, during which time the ancestors come back home to spend time with living family members. At the end of this brief spiritual reunion, some people use fireworks to send the beloved ancestors back to heaven, replacing traditionally used bonfires or lanterns.

The characteristic of fireworks, having to light up the night sky with a tremendous noise, only to disappear quietly, has also appealed to Japanese people in a similar way to cherry blossom, which has a beautiful and short life.

It is not surprising that many found Hanabi fitting for Obon’s principles and traditions.

New Scientific Development, Return of Traditional Colours

The ingredients for Hanabi came from domestic sources, mainly sulphur and carbon.  The fireworks that excited people of Edo were of darker orange, a glow of sparks and flames.  It was up to the Hanabi masters to use different skills and tricks to vary the shapes and brightness.

Then, after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, imports from Europe started to come in as Japan opened up ports to the outside world.

Hanabi making became significantly more complicated as the variety of available components widened:  Strontium chloride for red, Sodium for Yellow, Barium for Green, and Copper for blue.  Japanese Hanabi makers used these new ingredients to produce very elaborate and beautiful displays, tirelessly developing their products to be the world’s best.

These colourful displays are the summer favourite of young people’s social media activities, with a better camera and video quality on their smartphone.  They share new and exciting displays with detailed information, including when and where they may appear next.

But it is the dark orange traditional flowers, with long trails called Kamuro, that often conclude the festival of colours.  The demands of people change over time.  With high-quality cameras, bright colours and complex structures are very appealing.  With a high-quality video camera, delicate trails of the sparkle become attractive to capture.  The development of online platforms, from image to the movie to sharing, changed the popularity of the Hanabi variety.

The new ingredients and techniques allowed the Hanabi masters to create colourful spectacles.  The new media platforms demand varieties, uniqueness, and high quality.  The new generation leads the traditional industry to up their games.

But it is only possible because Hanabi makers always kept the traditional method at the heart of all the developments, with the basic shape still being that of the nation’s favourite flower, Chrysanthemum.

The original objective of lifting everyone’s spirit is what keeps both the makers and viewers united.

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