Few countries in the world revel in the four seasons like Japan. Haiku, perhaps Japan’s most famous poetry form, must by definition contain a seasonal reference, and the cuisine changes from season to season as various fish, vegetables, and fruit become available. Art also contains a garden of floral references that immediately place a viewer in the mind of the season represented. These ubiquitous seasonal references have given rise to the concept of fubutsushi - things which represent each season. For summer these items include things such as the hum of cicadas, small glass bells called furin, and fireworks.
Fireworks were invented in China some 2,000 years ago, and, given Japan’s close proximity to China, it would be reasonable to assume that fireworks have been an integral part of Japanese culture stretching back to the earliest days of recorded history. However, this assumption would be mistaken as fireworks took a circuitous route to Japan. They first traveled the Silk Road from China to the Middle East and eventually arrived in Florence, Italy, where one of the first recorded uses of fireworks in Europe took place in the 14th century. From that point onward fireworks spread throughout the continent and gained in popularity. Eventually, fireworks were carried on ships by missionaries and traders to Japan, where a demonstration was given to Date Masamune, one the great warlords of northern Japan, by a Portuguese missionary in 1589. Later, in 1613, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Edo bakufu that would rule Japan for over two centuries, was introduced to fireworks by an English trader.
The appreciation of fireworks spread after these demonstrations, and in 1659 a fireworks company called Kagiya was founded in Edo (modern day Tokyo). During this era, it was common to escape the summer heat by spending mid and late summer evenings aboard boats on the Sumida River, a practice called yusuzumi. In 1732, Edo was struck by both famine and plague, leaving many dead. To appease the spirits of the dead, and placate the living, the government announced that the start to the 1733 boating season would be marked by a fireworks display put on by Kagiya.
This became an annual event, and the Sumida River fireworks display is the oldest in Japan. In time, a second fireworks company called Tamaya, which was an offshoot of Kagiya, opened, and the two companies competed on the Sumida River, where the spectators would shout, “Kagiya!” and “Tamaya!” as the respective company’s products exploded overhead. Tamaya was forcibly disbanded by the Edo government after a severe mishap caused a fire that destroyed a large area surrounding its factory, but Kagiya still exists, and spectators to this day can be heard shouting “Kagiya, Tamaya!” at fireworks shows.
These spectators have plenty of opportunities to continue this long tradition, as fireworks festivals have multiplied from the initial show along the Sumida River and now number in the hundreds and are spread across the country. These fireworks are generally held on the weekends, and a visitor or resident of Japan is likely no more than a couple of hours from a fireworks show on any given Saturday from mid-July to late-August. Finding a fireworks show is as easy as walking to a train station where posters for various regional shows are posted. In keeping with tradition, most of these festivals are held on rivers or beaches, allowing attendees to enjoy the cool breezes blowing across the water. Comfortable temperatures and beautiful fireworks are in and of themselves reason enough to visit a Japanese fireworks show, but the atmosphere surrounding these events adds incalculable value to the experience.
While there are numerous fireworks shows, they are not all the same. Some, such as the Ise Fireworks in Mie Prefecture, are a competition where fireworks companies from around Japan come to compete. The organizers have the companies choreograph their shows to music, and the result are several different shows that elicit a range of emotions from romantic to triumphant. Other fireworks shows, such as Tenjin Matsuri fireworks in Osaka involve portable shrines and people in traditional clothes floating down the river on barges while fireworks explode overhead. Regardless of the type of fireworks show, the festive atmosphere is the same, and the areas near where the fireworks will be launched will have rows of yatai, which are temporary stands set up to serve a variety of foods from fried chicken to candied apples. Another seasonal item, yukata, which are light cotton kimonos, will also be prominently on display as summer festivals are where they are worn by large numbers of people.
Photo: Dick Thomas JohnsonDespite the relatively recent and convoluted pathway fireworks took in reaching Japan, the Japanese have made these imports their own in the few centuries they have been exploding in the night skies, and today it is impossible to imagine summer without a fireworks festival. Any visitor to Japan in July and August would be well advised to locate a nearby show and spend an evening cooling themselves in the tradition that the boat goers on the Sumida River began centuries ago.