Crash Course: Hanabi (Fireworks)

Summertime in Japan is synonymous with fireworks and barely a weekend goes by without some sort of hanabi display. I’m sad to be missing our local summer festival and fireworks this weekend but we’re off to Sendai at the end of the week for a brief summer vacation and I have plans to catch some hanabi up there.

Hanabi (literally “fire flowers” in Japanese) have been a part of Japanese culture since gunpowder arrived in the islands (with the Portuguese) in the 16th century. Though gunpowder was strictly used for arms in the beginning, the peaceful period following the Tokugawa shogun’s arrival to power in 1603 meant that former military objects could be redesignated. Gunpowder became available to the civilian population and fireworks displays became more commonplace, especially at river festivals in the summer months. The Sumida River Festival in Tokyo is one of Japan’s oldest fireworks festivals and was begun in 1733 as a means of cheering the city population after a harsh epidemic of cholera.

Sumid River Fireworks Festival (Source: Japan Guide)
Sumid River Fireworks Festival (Source: Japan Guide)

The years during World War II saw a strict rationing of fireworks and it was only due to the American forces that the pastime was brought back so quickly after the war’s end. Though fireworks and other incendiary devices were forbidden by the Allied Powers, US bases across Japan were given permission in 1946 for fireworks displays to mark Independence Day (July 4th). The rules were subsequently relaxed and the culture of hanabi flourished once again.

Japanese fireworks displays are prized for two main points – the perfect shape of the circular explosions and the variety of color that each spark can attain. To achieve the multiple hues, each firework “ball” is essentially crafted with several layers of color, the ones closest to the core burning higher in temperature and producing different colors as the spark fades out.

Fireworks in Japan
Fireworks in Japan (Source Japanzine)

There is a small museum in the Ryogoku neighborhood of Tokyo that showcases old and modern fireworks. They also display beautifully painted screens that detail the Sumida River Fireworks festival in years past. The English information is scant but if you’re in the neighborhood and have time, pop in and check it out.

What was the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen? Here’s a link to my five favorite fireworks festivals in Japan.


2 thoughts on “Crash Course: Hanabi (Fireworks)

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  1. Our local fireworks festival in Gifu is hard to beat. We have two Saturdays in-a-row of fireworks. The first is on the last Saturday of July and the second on the first Saturday of August. My favourite is the first which is called the Chunichi Shimbun Gifu Fireworks. It is one of the largest and best in all of Japan with around 30,000 fireworks set off.

    1. Wow – sounds fabulous! Another one to add to the list then. Thanks for sharing! We have a big one down here in Yatsushiro but I don’t know the stats off the top of my head.

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