What is Tanabata?

I headed to work a bit early today and while walking to the train I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my friend and fellow teacher, Marisa. It’s always good to see a familiar face, even if it’s during a “just a bit too early” morning commute. Whenever I bump into her, we always talk about how things are going, how teaching life is after-AEON (we worked there together), etc.. While we were talking today, Marisa made mention of today being Tanabata (たなばた or 七夕). I COMPLETELY FORGOT!! Thanks for the reminder, Marisa!

Students and teachers brought up Tanabata several times throughout the day. It was so cool at lunch time when one of my third grade students asked me if knew about Tanabata. I told him I only knew a little and asked him to explain it to me. He gave me a short, sweet, Japanese synopsis of Tanabata. I also asked other teachers what it was and tried to find out as much as I could.

I sometimes wish my Japanese could be better instantly, because sometimes I don’t understand everything that being explained to me. There is so much I really want to know about the culture, but I’ll get there…someday.

As Tanabata is Chinese in origin, I am sure the stories and customs may be a little from those of Japan, but I’ll tell you what I know of the Japanese-style Tanabata :)

What is Tanabata?

Tanabata is a Asian festival that is based on the Chinese legend of two lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi (those are the names in Japanese anyway) who can only meet once a year, July 7th. It’s a festival and a day that are custom-made for romance (AWESOME!…I’ll just call up my girlfri…I don’t hav…damn it!)

Alternate Tanabata Names

The Festival of the Weaver
The Star Festival

When Is Tanabata?

July 7th, every year.

Tanabata Customs

One of the most famous Japanese Tanabata customs is the decoration of bamboo branches with ornaments and colorful strips of paper.

These aren’t just your standard pieces of paper, though. It is said if you write your wish on a one of these strips of paper and hang it on the one of the bamboo branches…your wish will come to pass.

Famous Tanabata Areas in Japan

Though I don’t know a whole lot about the festivals themselves, because I have never been, Sendai and Hiratsuka are supposed to be the Tanabata hotspots here in Japan.

The Tanabata Story

The Japan Guy’s Interpretation

Tenno Osama (てんの おうさま or 天の 王さま), the King of the Sky, had a beautiful daughter named Orihime (おりひめ) who was an incredibly gifted seamstress. Tirelessly she would work at her loom, to weave the fabric that her father loved so much. Day in and day out, her long, lonely hours spent sewing left her empty inside, longing to have a companion. The Sky King felt sympathy for his daughter, and did what any good father would do, he chose a boyfriend for Orihime ( :) ). They Sky King arranged for his daughter to meet Hikoboshi (ひこぼし*) the good-hearted herder from around the way, the boy who had good values, the boy that would treat his daughter right.
*Hikoboshi, 彦星, is the Japanese name for the star Altair (The Cow Herder Star) while Orihime, 織り姫, is another name for the star, Vega (The Weaving Girl Star).

Upon meeting, the two were instantly taken with each other and fell in love. They loved each other so much in fact that even work no longer mattered to them*. Orihime began to neglect her finest talent, weaving. Hikoboshi began to neglect the very cows that were his livelihood…the cows began to roam everywhere. The Sky King became enraged! (I personally believe it’s because he thought Hikoboshi may have been “doing things” with Orihime.)

* Have you ever been in love to the point where nothing else mattered? Don’t rub it in! LOL

Being the Sky King and all, he used his incredible powers to create a mighty river that would permanently separate the two lovers. You may have heard of this vast river, in Japanese it’s called Amanogawa (天の川 or あまのがわ), which is better known to you and me as the Milky Way (Geez, Sky King!! Isn’t that a bit harsh?).

Orihime longed for Hikoboshi, and Hikoboshi longed for Orihime. Time went on, but the two never forgot about each other. Hibokoshi eventually went back to herding, though his heart was never the same. He would often look across the river wondering “Is she thinking about me?” Indeed she was.

Orihime went back to making wonderful fabric for her father, but every single day that her and Hikoboshi were apart she could do nothing but cry. Orihime’s tears softened her father’s heart enough to allow the two lovers to meet once a year.

So on the eve of July 7th, if you look up into the summer nighttime sky and you can see Vega (the Weaving Girl) and Altair (the Cow Herder’s Star), it means that Orihime and Hikoboshi, two lovers, were once again reunited. If however, on July 7th, you look up and see clouds…it’s a sad day indeed as the lovers will have to wait for another year to see one another.

Happy Tanabata, Everyone!

Donald Ash

P.S.-Unfortunately, it was cloudy here in Tsukuba for the second year in a row. Sigh, That really sucks for Orihime and Hikoboshi :(

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  • I always liked the story behind this festival.. but I have a thing for folklore to begin with.

  • Mariko

    I hope that your wish will come true, Donald!;-) Btw, I completely understand how you feel about your Japanese language… I’m pretty sure that your Japanese is way much better than my French, but I always wish that my French could be better and I could understand what people say perfectly. 頑張りましょうね!

  • Ms. Hoshino

    You really understand the story. Very good! You seem so nice I hope you have a girl friend for the next Tanabata. :)

    • Donald Ash

      Me too :)

  • Kayla

    Wow, I never knew the story behind this festival before. How poetic and sad.

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