Brightly colored strips of paper hang from the branches of a bamboo tree, each one inscribed with a short wish. Streamers fly, hung on flag poles and from the sides of buildings, symbolizing wishes for prosperity and plenty. Hanging kinchaku, or bags of prosperity, and folded paper cranes also fly in the wind on this day. These are a few of the hallmarks of the Japanese festival Tanabata, or the Star Festival.
Tanabata has its origin with the Chinese Quixi festival, known as the Festival to Plead for Skills, and was first introduced in Japan during the Heian period by Empress Koken. Like Quixi, Tanabata is said to have been inspired by an ancient Chinese folklore story. According to Chinese folklore, the night sky depicted what was called the Heavenly Kingdom, a place populated by star people. The movements and features of stars and celestial bodies were often explained as happenings in the Kingdom and the story that inspired Tanabata is no exception. This story, called “The Cowherd and and Weaver Girl” goes as follows.
Orohime (symbolized by the star Vega), the daughter of the Sky Emperor Tentei, was a skilled weaver who spent her days weaving beautiful clothes for her father along the bank of the Heavenly River (symbolized by the Milky Way band across the sky). One day Orohime became sad and lonely. Her work weaving left her with no time to herself and she longed to meet someone and fall in love. Out of concern for her, Tentei arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi (symbolized by the star Altair), a cowherd who lived on the other side of the Heavenly River. When Orohime and Hikoboshi met, they quickly fell in love and married. They were so content with each other that they stopped keeping up with their work. Orohime left her weaving unfinished, and Hikoboshi let his cows wander all over the place. Tentei quickly became angry with them, separated them across the Heavenly River and forbade them from meeting again. Distraught over being separated from her husband, Orohime begged her father to allow them to be together again. Eventually, Tentei agreed to let them see one another on the 7th day of the 7th month each year.
On the day of their first reunion, there was no bridge across the Heavenly River for Orohime to cross to be with Hikoboshi. Completely despondent over not being able to meet her husband, Orohime broke down in tears. Hearing her cries a flock of magpies descended and offered to make a bridge across the river with their wings for her to cross. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the water of the Heavenly River will be too high for the magpies to form a bridge over and Orohime and Hikoboshi will have to wait until the following year to meet again.
Tanabata as a festival practiced by the public gained widespread popularity during the Edo period. At that time, due to close proximity of dates (at the time Tanabata was July 7, and Obon was July 15), some of the customs from Obon spilled over into Tanabata. After the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, Obon’s date was officially set for August 15, making it a completely separate holiday from Tanabata.
Customs on Tanabata vary slightly from region to region, but the biggest commonality shared regardless of location is the tradition of writing wishes (sometimes in the form of a poem) on a thin sheet of paper, and then hanging the paper from the branches of a piece of timber bamboo. In the past it was tradition for girls to wish for better weaving and craftsmanship, and boys to wish for better handwriting. Today, people wish for just about anything that might be on their minds, from kids wishing to be famous sports stars when they grow up, to mothers wishing for their kids to have good grades, and business people wishing for their next big promotion. After the wishes have been hung, the bamboo is typically then floated down a nearby river or burned by midnight the next day.
In years past, we have had our very own Tanabata celebration here at Maido! Slips of paper are left out on a table next to an imitation bamboo tree, for customers and employees alike to write their wishes on. We have collected many wishes in the past, and hope to continue the tradition in years to come.
Note: We have decided to cancel our annual Tanabata celebration in order to protect our customers' and employees' safety. Thank you for your understanding.