July brings Tanabata, one of Japan’s most well-known festivals. Many people recognize the pieces of paper with wishes hanging from a bamboo tree. But do you know why this “star festival” is celebrated and why we write on colorful pieces of paper? The origin of this summer tradition can be traced back to the story of two (literally) star-crossed lovers.
Once upon a time…
There was a princess named Orihime. She was a weaver who made beautiful pieces of cloth by the heavenly river, also known as the Milky Way. Because Orihime spent most of her time weaving, she became very sad and felt that she would never find love. Her father, who was God of the Heavens, knew of a good young man who lived just across the Milky Way. His name was Hikoboshi, a cow herder. The two fell in love instantly. But their love for each other was so deep that they neglected their duties. Orihime stopped weaving and Hikoboshi’s cows wandered the heavens.
The God of the Heavens became very angry and forbade the two lovers to be together. But he was also the father of Orihime and loved her deeply, so he arranged that they could meet up once a year if Orihime returned to her weaving. This day became the 7th day of the 7th month.
Finally, the long-awaited day arrived, but the Milky Way was too difficult for both of them to cross. A flock of magpies saw Orihime’s sadness and made a bridge for her so she could cross and reunited with her lover. It is said that when it rains on Tanabata, the magpies do not come and the lovers have to wait another year.
Why Paper Wishes?
When Tanabata first arrived in Japan from China in the Heian period (794 – 1185), aristocrats in the imperial court would write poetry while gazing at the stars to celebrate the lovers. It wasn’t until the Edo period (1603–1868) that Tanabata was celebrated by all the people of Japan. It was during this period that the tradition of writing wishes on tanzaku, brightly colored pieces of paper, and hanging them from branches of bamboo became part of the celebration.
People started using a tall and straight bamboo to hang the strips of paper with their wishes, hoping that their hopes and dreams would be sent to the heavens.