The Facts About the Japanese Tanabata Festivals

What this tradition means to the Japanese

Ornaments for Tanabata festival
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If you've never been to Japan, you may not be familiar with Tanabata. So, what is it exactly? In a nutshell, Tanabata is a Japanese tradition in which people write their wishes on small, colorful strips of papers and hang them on bamboo branches. The Japanese term for these papers is tanzaku. Alternatively, some people also decorate bamboo branches with various kinds of paper decorations and place them outside of their houses. 

The way the Japanese make wishes may be unique, but a variety of cultures have customs related to wish making. In the United States and other Western countries, breaking chicken wishbones, throwing pennies into fountains, blowing out birthday candles or on dandelion fluff are just some of the ways said to make a wish come a true. Tanabata is a different custom, but it is universal in the sense that all people, no matter their country of origin, have hopes and dreams to fulfill. 

The Origin of Tanabata

It's said that the origin of Tanabata, which is also known as the Star Festival, dates back to more than 2,000 years ago. Its roots are described in an old Chinese tale. According to the tale, once there was a weaver princess named Orihime and a cow herder prince named Hikoboshi living in space. After they got together, they played all the time and began to neglect their work. This angered the king, who separated them on opposite sides of the Amanogawa River (Milky Way) as punishment.

The king relented somewhat and allowed Orihime and Hikoboshi to see each other once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. Tanabata literally means the night of the seventh. The Japanese believe that Orihime and Hikoboshi can't see each other if the weather is rainy, so it's customary to pray for good weather on this day and also to make wishes.

The Date Fluctuates

Because Tanabata is based on the lunar calendar, when the star festival takes place each year varies. Depending on the region hosting the celebration, Tanabata is celebrated either on July 7 or Aug. 7 in Japan. Many cities and towns in the country hold Tanabata festivals and set colorful displays along the main streets. It's especially fun to walk through the long streamers on the street. In some regions, people light lanterns and float them on the river. Some float bamboo leaves on the river instead.

Wrapping Up

Tanabata celebrates a number of different concepts, including love, wishes, playfulness and beauty, all while explaining the constellations. If you can't make it to Japan for a star festival, you can participate in Tanabata in places that boast a large Japanese population. Los Angeles, for example, is one such city. It is home to a star festival that takes place in August in its Little Tokyo neighborhood.

While participating in Tanabata abroad won't be quite the same as celebrating in Japan, doing so will give you a chance to observe authentic Japanese customs firsthand.