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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on July 26, 2019
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 104] July 26, 2019

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 104]
July 26, 2019
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal event:
It was originally a smoke signal: Fireworks

:: 1. Seasonal event

Here is a Tanka, Japanese traditional poem in "The ISEKI Takako diary"
who was a poet in 18c.

"Ofuneno tsukutano okini aguru hino Sorani nokorite tsukito kagayou"

The fireworks are being set off from the big boat into the sky on Kojima
offshore. They stay in the sky for a long time and shine like the moon,
which makes them well suited to their name "Zangetsu (morning moon)".

Many countries display fireworks at the count down for New Year. On top
of that, there are other occasions and seasons that people get excited
about fireworks. For example, Diwali in November in India, Independence
Day in July in the United States and Guy Fawkes Night in November in
the United Kingdom. In Japan, Fireworks which light up the night sky
or handheld fireworks which are enjoyed with friends and family members
have been a symbol of summer since long ago. It is now the end of July
and currently the season for fireworks so many displays and festivals
are being held all over Japan. Fireworks are not particularly for the
summer season but also for anniversaries as well as New Years Eve along
with most other countries, however, it is recognized as a summery thing
in Japan. What is the story behind it?

The origin of fireworks is a smoke signal. It was a common method to
transmit since ancient times in many places in the world. In China,
what they burned or the amount of fuel were changed and those combinations
were able to vary the signals according to the situation or the details.
It may possibly be a coincidence that they already knew about saltpeter,
a black explosive material, to make the fire to blaze up. Although
the original gunpowder was invented in the Tang dynasty in the 6th
century, it is said that initial fireworks were created at the same
time or could be created in the Southern Sony dynasty which is in the
12th century. Gunpowder was a by-product of reassemble alchemy and also
reproducing alchemy and people were trying to compound miraculous
medicine for eternal youth and immortality which were greatly studied
at that time. The development of fireworks followed the same way of
gunpowder as weapon.

There are a couple of theories to indicate when fireworks were introduced
to Japan. One of them is in a diary written by a noble in the Muromachi
era in the 15th century that depicts a scene in which Chinese people are
showing something, resembling fireworks to Japanese nobles in a precinct
in Shojokein temple in Kyoto prefecture. The fireworks at that time were
already similar to the fireworks we use it today something like pinwheel
or skyrocket. It seems that fireworks were already being created for
entertainment purposes.

The time that Japanese people started making their original fireworks
is apparently after the introduction of firearms from abroad in the 16th
century. When it was the Edo period in the 17 century, the fireworks
which are similar to current fireworks started developing. An area
called "Mikawa" in the Eastern part of the Aichi prefecture was the
only place that the Edo shogunate officially approved of manufacturing
and storing gunpowder. As a result, its by-product, fireworks developed
here too. The Shizuoka prefecture holds the highest number of fireworks
displays in Japan and there are so many companies related to fireworks
that gather in this region. It is a trace of the Edo shogunate policy
after all.

In the 17th century, among the feudal lords first, and then, the ordinary
people in Edo (Tokyo), fireworks became extremely popular. The shogunate
were concerned about conflagration and set a rule in which fireworks were
only allowed by the Sumida River. However, people endlessly broke the
rule and there was even a general that held a fireworks display in his
castle. Many of the feudal lords, samurai and wealthy citizens hired
a fireworks boat and gazing fireworks on the river was a luxury and
stylish amusement in summer at that time.

It is said that fireworks being displayed in summer in Japan is likely
related to "Okuri bi (Sending fire)". It is a fire to send spirits of
ancestors and dead people back to the other world which have been visiting
this world to see us during the Obon season. Okuribi ceremony can be
held just out side of a house door within a family scale whereas giant
bonfires forming a Kanji (Japanese writing character) are lit on a mountain
as a local event. And more, paper lanterns with fire are floated away
on the river in some places. The fireworks display in Sumida River which
still exists today was originally called "Ryogoku Hiraki (Opening Ryogoku)"
and it was held to repose spirits and souls.

In 1732, farming crops failed across the nation due to a plague of
locusts and Cholera also prevailed causing a great number of casualties.
The eighth shogun in the Edo era, TOKUGAWA Yoshimune, held a ceremony to
pray for the water god to console the spirits of the dead and to expel
the evil sprits along the Sumida River. One of the restaurants located
in the Ryogoku area was permitted to offer food and drinks as offerings
for the spirits. To let them release them from the pain of famine and
then to ascend them to heaven to rest them in peace, the restaurant
displayed fireworks. After that, on the first day that the river opened
to the public, it gradually became the custom to have a fireworks display.

The Tanka in the opening paragraph was sung about the fireworks display
in Tsukuda Island. As the First Opium War broke out in the Qing dynasty,
the Edo shogunate ordered feudal lords to develop artillery and guns.
After the practice of artillery, many fireworks were launched as well
in the island. The sound reached as far as even Kudanshita where the
writer was living which was a couple of kilometres away.

It was originally created to fight in wars but it has become an enjoyment
item and people have been filled with joyful moments with its sound
and flashes of light in night sky. To be able to enjoy fireworks in peace
is actually extremely happy, and something to be grateful for,
don't you think?

Translation by: Hitomi Kochi, reviewed by Chan Yee Ting

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Development Organization (JTCO)- All Rights Reserved.

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