There are many festivals celebrated throughout the year in Japan. However many festivals exist in Japan, there is only one fixed festival that honors the representation of stars: hopeful wishes.
Tanabata (たなばた, 七夕), or the Star Festival, is celebrated every year on July 7th all over Japan with local variations. It honors the legend of two lovers separated by the Milky Way. Fortunately, the lovers, Cowherd Star, or Altair, and Weaver Star, or Vega, are allowed to meet once a year on the evening of July 7th.
The legend, which is derived from a Chinese folktale known in Japanese as Kikkoden (きっこでん, 乞巧奠), is about a cow herder named Hikoboshi and a weaver princess, Orihime, who played together so much, they forgot their duties, upsetting the king. In response, the king separated Hikoboshi and Orihimi by a river called Amanogawa River, or the Milky Way. However, Orihimi begged the king to allow her to see Hikoboshi again, so the king set aside one day for them to meet. Though tanabata’s legendary story is one about two lovers, the festival itself is a time where wishes are asked to come true.
During tanabata, people write their wishes onto small and colorful strips of paper called tanzaku (たんざく, 短冊). Once the tanzaku are hung onto bamboo stalks or trees and displayed in their yards and home entrances, people pray for their wishes to come true. The next day, the decorations with the tanzaku are released into oceans, rivers, or streams. Colored streamers are also used to show off the tanabata spirit around the neighborhood. Other decorations include a casting net, or toami (とあみ, 投網), for good luck in fishing and farming, and a purse, or kinchaku (きんちゃく, 巾着), for wealth and good business.
Each area of Japan celebrates tanabata differently. Several areas light torches as part of the celebration, while others use horse-shaped puppets instead of bamboo stalks for displaying their tanazaku. Though tanabata is largely celebrated on July 7th, some areas of Japan celebrate tanabata on August 7th alongside the ancestral summer holiday, Bon (ぼん, 盆), which honors the return of the family’s ancestors. Outside of Bon, some cities couple tanabata with another celebration. Aomori of the Touhoku Region also celebrates the star festival with the Nebuta (ねぶた) Festival, parading lanterns made of papier-mache alongside customary tanabata decorations.
Amongst all of the tanabata celebrations, Sendai of the Miyagi Prefecture and Hiratsuka of the Kanagawa Prefecture are known to have elaborate tanabata events. Because of this, Sendai and Hiratsuka have become tourist attractions during the month of July.
With the exception of the original tale, tanabata is one of Japan’s celebrations where hopes and wishes are requested in full festival fashion.
Japan National Tourism Organization. “Tanabata (Star Festival)”. http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/history/traditionalevents/a69a_fes_tanabata.html.
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“Tanabata”. Kids Web Japan. http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/explore/calendar/july/tanabata.html .
“Tanabata”. Leighton Buzzard Childminding Association. http://www.lbcma.org.uk/festivals/Mtanabata.asp.
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