Tanabata: The Japanese Star Festival and The Milky Way Lovers

Star Festival in Tokyo, Japan
Japanese Star Festival in Tokyo

The Japanese Star Festival

Tanabata ( たなばた or 七夕) or Star Festival is a Japanese holiday derived from the Chinese tradition Qixi (七夕 “Night of Sevens”).

The party celebrates the meeting between Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair). The Milky Way, a river made of stars that crosses the sky, separates these lovers, and they are only allowed to see each other once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar. Since the stars only appear at night, the celebration is usually nocturnal.

The holiday originates from the “The Festival to Plead for Skills“, an alternate name for Qi xi, which was celebrated in China and was adopted in Japan at the imperial palace in Kyoto during the Heian era.

The festival spread to the general public at the beginning of the Edo era, mixing with other festivals such as Bon Odori, since the festival was celebrated on the 7th day of the seventh month at that time. This is how the modern Tanabata festival originated.

During the Edo era, girls asked for better sewing and handicraft skills, and boys asked for better calligraphy by writing wishes on sheets of paper. At this same time, the custom was to use the dew collected on taro leaves to create the ink used to write these wishes. Today, Bon Odori falls on August 15 of the solar calendar, closer to its original date on the lunar calendar, but further removed from the Tanabata holiday.

Tanabata The Japanese Star Festival and Milky Way Lovers
Tanabata The Japanese Star Festival and Milky Way Lovers

The name “Tanabata” is loosely based on the Japanese reading of the Chinese characters 七夕, which used to be read as “shichiseki”. It is believed that a Shinto purification celebration existed around the same time, in which a Miko would weave a special piece of cloth called Tanabata (棚機 (たなばた)) and offer it to the god to pray for protection for the rice fields from the rains. and storms, and for a good fall harvest.

Gradually, this ceremony merged with the festival for the Supplication of Skills and became Tanabata (七夕 Tanabata). It is curious that the Chinese characters 七夕 and the Japanese reading “Tanabata” for the same characters came together to mean the same festival, even though they originally represented two things.

Like Qi xi, Tanabata is inspired by the famous Asian tale of “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl“.

Vega and Altair: The Milky Way Lovers

The Mily Way Lovers meet during the Japanese Star Festival on the 'Night of the Sevens'
The Milky Way Lovers meet during the Japanese Star Festival on the ‘Night of the Sevens’

Orihime (織姫, the Weaver Princess) was the daughter of Tentei (天帝, the Heavenly King). Orihime wove splendid cloth on the banks of the Amanogawa River (天の川, the Milky Way). Her father loved her fabrics, and she worked hard day after day to have them ready, but because of her work, the princess couldn’t meet someone to fall in love with, which made her very sad.

Worried about her daughter, her father arranged a meeting between her and Hikoboshi (彦星, also known as Kengyuu, 牽牛), a herdsman who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa River. When the two met, they fell instantly in love and soon after, they were married.

However, once they were married, Orihime began to neglect her chores and stopped weaving for her father, while Hikoboshi paid less and less attention to her cattle, which ended up scattered across Heaven.

Orihime  and Hikoboshi - The Milky Way lovers meet on the bridge on the 'Night of the Sevens'
Orihime and Hikoboshi – The Milky Way lovers meet on the bridge on the ‘Night of the Sevens’

Furious, the Heavenly King separated the lovers, one on either side of the Amanogawa, and forbade them from seeing each other. Orihime, desperate for the loss of her husband, asked her father to allow them to see each other once more. Her father, moved by her tears, agreed to allow the lovers to meet on the seventh day of the seventh month, provided that Orihime had finished her work.

However, the first time they tried to see each other, they realized that they could not cross the river, since there was no bridge. Orihime cried so much that a flock of cranes came to her aid and promised to make a bridge with their wings so they could cross the river.

The lovers were finally reunited and the cranes promised to come every year as long as it didn’t rain. When that circumstance occurs, the lovers have to wait to meet until the following year.

Vega and Altair Legend: The Milky Way Lovers
Vega and Altair Legend: The Milky Way Lovers

6 thoughts on “Tanabata: The Japanese Star Festival and The Milky Way Lovers

  1. I’m too suspicious to say anything that involves stars, I think they’re too beautiful and even more knowing that there is this lunar festival that takes place in the seventh lunar month, it gets to be even more incredible. because of a love story that was somehow prevented from being lived in a dignified way by the girl’s father. But Chinese culture is fascinating!

  2. Chinese culture (simplified Chinese: 中华文化; traditional Chinese: 中華文化; pinyin: Zhōnghuá wénhuà) is one of the world’s oldest cultures, originating thousands of years ago.[1][2] The culture prevails across a large geographical region in East Asia and is extremely diverse and varying, with customs and traditions varying greatly between provinces, cities, and even towns as well. The terms ‘China’ and the geographical landmass of ‘China’ have shifted across the centuries, with the last name being the Great Qing before the name ‘China’ became commonplace in modernity.

  3. great story about milky way love i Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair) adorable as it shows true love, Tanabata is a great day for celebration in my opinion Probably one of the oldest culture that has been invented as well as Chinese culture, interesting story nothing is better than those old stories ngl!

  4. This article has captures the essence of this festival quite nicely, by highlighting its history, the significance of the legend, the rituals and customs associated with it, as well as it cultural and regional variations.

    1. The birds that made a bridge are magpies not cranes. They say no one can see a single magpie the 7th day of the 7th month, for they are busy in heavens.

      1. I think the type of bird might be down to mistranslations of the tales, here and there.

        But I like that none can see them on the 7th day of the 7th month, because they are busy 🙂

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