Japan’s Tanabata Festival

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A Japanese Tale Worthy of Valentine’s Day

Discover the bittersweet folktale that surrounds Tanabata, one of Japan’s major summer celebrations.

The kanji used to write “tanabata” literally mean “seventh night.” Tanabata, frequently referred to as the star festival, is celebrated in Japan at or around the seventh night of July.

Tanabata is called the star festival because of the Chinese folktale it commemorates, the Princess and the Cowherd. To help tell the story, here is a literal translation of the Japanese names used in the folktale. A dash indicates a new word, i.e. Ori means weaving, Hime means princess.

  • Ori-Hime – Weaving Princess
  • Tentei – King of the Universe
  • Ama-no-gawa –Milky Way (literally “Heavenly River”)
  • Hiko-boshi – Cow Herder Star

Legend of the Cowherder

Orihime wove cloth every day by the Amanogawa. Her father Tentei loved the beautiful cloth she wove so Orihime worked hard to please him. Orihime was sad though because she had no time to meet a man and fall in love with him.

Tentei noticed Orihime’s unhappiness so he contacted Hikoboshi, who herded his cows on the opposite side of the Amanogawa, and set up a meeting between the two. It was love at first sight for Orihime and Hikoboshi, and they were married almost immediately.

To Tentei’s dismay, Orihime stopped weaving her beautiful cloth after the marriage, and Hikoboshi’s cows began to wander all corners of the heavens. In anger, Tentei ordered the two to return to their respective sides of the Amanogawa, and forbade them to meet.

Orihime was crushed, and begged her father to let her meet with Hikoboshi again. Being a kind father, Tentei relented and promised that as long as Orihime worked hard at her weaving, she could meet with Hikoboshi on the seventh day of the seventh month each year.

Unfortunately there is no bridge on the Amanogawa. Orihime cried so hard when discovering this that a flock of magpies made a bridge for her with their wings.

Altair and Vega are the two stars which the legend refers to as Orihime and Hikoboshi; they cross once a year. There are other variations of the story but the ending is always the same: the two lovers are only able to meet once a year, when Altair and Vega cross. It is held that if July 7th is rainy, the two won’t be able to meet though, so everyone prays for good weather that day.

Tanabata in Japan Today

Tanabata almost faded into the past during Japan’s post-Meiji Westernization period but regained popularity after World War II. At Tanabata celebrations today wishes are written on small pieces of paper. These are then hung on bamboo and either put in a river that represents the Amanogawa, or burned the follow day after the festivities are over. A carnival atmosphere reigns during Tanabata and there are decorations, food, and sometimes even parades. There is a Tanabata song as well:

The bamboo leaves rustle, rustle,

shaking away in the eaves.

The stars go twinkle, twinkle;

Gold and silver grains of sand.

The images in the song might not be pink or red in color, but they certainly convey enough beauty for a Valentine! This festival that recalls separated lovers is a great way to help one appreciate having the love of his or her life on the same side of the river.

And who knows? Maybe one day Tentei will relent and Orihime and Hikoboshi will be united for eternity once again.