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