Also known as the Weaver’s Festival or the Star Festival, Tanabata is held annually on July 7th, or the seventh night of the seventh moon, according to the Japanese lunisolar calendar. Thought to have origins in the Chinese Qixi Festival, Tanabata celebrates the once-a-year meeting between the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi (the Weaver Princess and the Cow Herder) who are separated by the Ama no gawa (Heavenly River, i.e. the Milky Way).
Orihime was the daughter of Tentei (Sky King) who wove beautiful cloth by the bank of the Heavenly River (Milky Way). With her time consumed by weaving cloth, Orihime became saddened that she could not meet and fall in love with someone. Her father arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi who lived on the other side of Amanogawa. The two instantly fell in love, but their marriage meant that Orihime could no longer weave for her father and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to stray all over the heavens.
Angered, Tentei separated the two and forbade them to meet. Saddened by the loss of her husband, Orihime asked her father to let them meet again. Relenting, Tentei allowed the two to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month if she worked hard and finished her weaving. However, upon meeting, they found that they could not cross the river due to there being no bridge. Orihime cried so heavily that a flock of magpies came and formed a bridge across the river with their wings so the two could meet briefly.
The story of Tanabata coincides with the movement of the stars Vega and Altair which come together in the night sky once a year. Orihime represents Vega and Hikoboshi represents Altair. The stars Vega and Altair have been observed since ancient times in various cultures across the world. Although the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar dates Tanabata as occurring around July 7th, according to the modern Gregorian calendar, it actually occurs around August 7th.
Historical and Cultural Significance in Japan
Tanabata was introduced to Japan in 755 by Empress Shotoku and later adopted by the Kyoto Imperial Palace during the Heian period. Gaining popularity with the public during the Edo period, Tanabata became mixed with several traditions of Obon. However, today, Tanabata and Obon are separate events. Customs vary by region, but girls traditionally wish for better sewing and craftsmanship skills, and boys wish for better handwriting skills.
In the present day, people often celebrate by writing wishes on pieces of paper called Tanzaku and tying them to bamboo branches along with other decorations. Some cities hold Tanabata festivals around July 7th and some hold it around August 7th. Around August 7th, the city of Sendai, Miyagi holds one of the most well-known Tanabata festivals in Japan.
Common decorations are:
Tanzaku – paper strips with wishes written on them
Kamigoromo – paper kimono
Orizuru – paper cranes
Kinchaku – purse
Toami – fishing net
Kuzukago – trash bag
Fukinagashi – paper streamers
Roberts, Jeremy. Japanese Mythology A to Z. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2004. Print