Seasonal Calendar of July

In this 'Seasonal Calendar', I would like to introduce traditional Japanese seasonal events, which come down to Japanese's modern life for the time being.

This Season's Traditional Events

Usually, the number of festivals and events held throughout the country, increases during this time of year between Tsuyu ( the Rainy Season ) and Summer, but it should be said that the largest event held in July is Tanabata. So this month, I would like to introduce Tanabata as a traditional Japanese event.

What is Tanabata?


Tanabata is a star festival which is held in Japan either on July 7th or August 7th. Japanese's general recognition of Tanabata day is July 7th, however in some regions, Tanabata festivals are held on August 7th. It is said that this descends from the fact that Tanabata festivals were originally held on July 7th of the lunar calendar.

In many parts of Japan, customs still remain to set up a leafed bamboo for Tanabata, decorated with reed-shaped strip of papers in 5 colors, and other papercrafts. The strips of paper called Tanzaku, is told to be made in 5 different colors based on the Chinese theory of Yin-Yang and the five elements, green, red, yellow, white and black, but people seem to become less conscious about it. It is believed that your wish would come true, if you write it down on the Tanzaku and hang it on the bamboo branch.

Tanabata Related Legend

As a star festival, there is a legend related to Tanabata which is also said to be one of the basic elements of Tanabata. The legend that come from Chinese Taoism, is called 'Sei-ou-bo Den-setsu ( Queen Mother of the West legend )' in Japan, a tragic love story featuring 2 stars Vega of Lyra ( the Lyre ) and Altair of Aquila ( the Eagle ). Though the details of this legend slightly differs according to each region, here I'd like to introduce the most commonly known story in Japan.

Sei-ou-bo ( Queen Mother of the West ), the Queen of all goddess in Taoism, had a daughter ( or granddaughter ) named Shoku-jo ( represents Vega of Lyra ). Shoku-jo was a beautiful light-fingered young girl, who was very good in weaving and also a very hard worker, but she stayed single and lived alone on the east side of the Milky Way.

So Sei-ou-bo married her off to a young hard working cow keeper Ken-gyu ( represents Altair of Aquila ), who lived on the west side of the Milky Way. But the young couple were so much in love with each other, that Shoku-jo stopped weaving while Ken-gyu stopped driving his cow, after they got married.

Sei-ou-bo, the Queen of goddess, was infuriated at this and seperated the couple, taking Shoku-jo back to the east side of the Milky Way. Two lovers torn apart on the eastern and western shores of the Milky Way, were both overwhelmed with sadness and weeped their days away. Seeing them in such despair, Sei-ou-bo felt sorry for them, and it is told that she allowed them to see each other only once a year, on July 7th.

Shoku-jo and Ken-gyu that appear in this legend, are more popular in Japan as Ori-hime and Hiko-boshi.

The Roots of Tanabata

The most common theory about Tanabata roots, is said to be the mixture of an ancient Japanese tradition of 'Tanabatatsume event', and a Chinese event called 'Kikkouden' imported from China. However, as I went collecting informations about Tanabata, I came to find out that it was multi-layered by various elements, which I couldn't get it over with such simple explanations. So I would like to seek for the start of this Tanabata event, where it had begun, how it had been changed and transmitted to today, by looking at its history and changing process.

The 'Tnabatatsume Event' and the 'Visitation of God Belief'

Before Tanabata event came into existance in Japan, it is thought that there was a certain form of belief in the 'visitaion of God', in Southeast Asia and Oceanian islands. It was believed then in those places, that God would come from his kingdom somewhere far beyond the sea, to bring to the people good harvest and happiness.

In fact, this kingdom of God is said to be called Nirai-kanai in Okinawa ( southern island in Japan ) , and it is told that there were events to welcome God when he came to the island, or see him off when he leaves for his kingdom. You can also see in Japan's oldest historical book Kojiki ( known in English as Records of Ancient Matters ), that Amaterasu known as the Goddess of sun, who took control of the heavens, sent her grandson Ninigi down to earth to make him rule over the ground. Although Kojiki is not so reliable as a historical record of objective facts, since it is a collection of myths and legends, it is not hard to imagine that there was a 'visitaion of God belief' also in the early days of Japan.

The 'Tanabatatsume event', thought as one of the origins of Tanabata event today, is told that is was a ritual for a young priestess to wait for God's arrival, weaving his robe called Kamu-miso by the waterside. Purified priestess waiting to welcome God's arrival with a robe ready for him to wear, links to the God welcoming event in Okinawa.

Ninigi, who appears in the former said myths of Kojiki, is said to have taken for his wife, a young girl weaving by the waterside named Konohanano-sakuya-hime, whose alias is said to be Tanabatatsume. These two incidents seem to prove the relation between the 'Tanabatatsume event' and the 'visitation of God belief', in the point that they both welcome the arrival of God. From this similarity, 'Tanabatatsume event' could be thought as an extension of the 'visitaion of God belief'.

The Fusion with Ancestor Worship

Though it is uncertain when the 'Tanabatatsume event' had begun, or until when such event was held, rice farming is thought to have taken root in Japan by the 3rd century, when prosperity of both family and community depended absolutely on fine crop of rice. So it could be guessed that 'Tanabatatsume event' was already taking place by this time.


Somewhere between mid 4th century and the 5th, ancestor worship comes up in Japan, a religious practice based on the belief, that ancestral spirits would turn into genius loci and help the growth of rice. This new element of ancestor worship is thought to have fused together quite naturally, with the 'Tanabatatsume event' based on the 'visitation of God belief', which probably already existed at that time, in the point that they both shared the same essence of God bringing them fine crop.

In some of the Japanese agricultural communities, you can still see a custom of making horse dolls called Tanabata-uma ( literally, Tanabata horse ) with straws, and putting them up on the roof on Tanabata day. This Tanabata-uma is made as a horse for God to ride on, after he has come down to the ground from the heavens, so it may be said that you could see the traces of both 'Tanabatatsume event' and ancestor worship in this custom. As for the practice to use leafed bamboos for Tanabata decorations, this too could be thought as a legacy from the Japanese farm communities at this time, for it was believed that ancestral spirits resided in bamboos.

The Arrival of Foreign Culture

Around the middle of 5th century, many people of Korea in those days came into Japan to escape from constant war, and it is said that it were those people who brought new different culture into Japan. Buddhism was among them, imported from China via Korea. And with this introduction of Buddhism, the Tanabata event practiced in Japanese farm communities, were added another character to its structure as a part of Ura-bon-e ( commonly known as Bon festival ), a religious rite in Buddhism to enshrine the soul of the deceased.

In Sendai City ( Sendai prefecture, Japan ), it is said that there used to be a tradition called Nanukabi ( literally, 7th day bath ). People cut branches off from the bamboos used for Tanabata decorations ( bamboos were usually decorated and set up in the evening of July 6th ), to reuse the trunk as laundry poles ( poles to hang dry wet laundry ), while leafed branches in papercraft decorations, were thrown into the river as is on the morning of July 7th, where they bathed and washed their belongings.

This day of Nnukabi also had an alias of Nanuka-bon ( literally, Bon on the 7th ), and there were customs to clean up water wells and rivers along with family tombs, a tradition which could be accepted as preparations for welcoming ancestor's souls, for the upcoming Buddhist rite Ura-bon-e. Through these traditions of Nanukabi and Nanuka-bon, it could be seen that the event of Tanabata in Japanese agricultural communities, which already possesed ancestor worship in itself, had shifted into a purifying rite before Ura-bon-e influenced by Buddhism.

Meanwhile in the urban area, it is thought that 'Sei-ou-bo Den-setsu ( Queen Mother of the West legend )' and 'Kikkouden', a star festival that comes from 'Sei-ou-bo Den-setsu', were imported from China together with Buddhism around the middle of 5th century. Records are left that the first 'Kikkouden' was held in Japan as court function in 752, and the needles that are thought to be presented at the altar during the ceremony, are still said to be left in Shou-sou-in ( ancient historical building of treasure storage in Japan ). However, according to the demise of Emperor Heijou on July 7th 824, July 7th was abhorred and 'Kikkouden' did not take root in Court, but instead it spread among aristocrats in those days.

Tanabata Tradition in the Urban Area

When it comes into Muromachi era ( 1338-1573 ), the custom of celebrating 'Kikkouden' as a family event among aristocrats were handed down to Samurais, and become widely spread. On Tanabata day ( July 7th ), it is told that court nobles, Samurais and monks gathered on this day to play 'Shichi-asobi ( literally, seven games )', games associated with the number '7'.

During the Edo era ( 1603-1868 ) 'Kikkouden' becomes an official occasion, based on the fact that the government of Edo established 'Gosekku ( literally 5 Sekku days )' as the following 5 days, Jin-jitsu on January 7th, Jou-shi on March 3rd, Tango on May 5th, Shichi-seki on July 7th and Chou-you on September 9th, to hold official events. It is thought that the custom might have spread rapidly throughout general household later on, with the help of Terakoya ( schools in those days ) who made children write poems on rectangular paper decorations called Tanzaku, as a part of learning.

Rural Tanabata Tradition Meets the Urban

By this time, Tanabata decoratins such as bamboos and Tanzakus ( reed-shaped paper decorations in 5 different colors ) which weren't used in 'Kikkouden', start to appear especially in Samurai families. Leafed bamboos were not originally used in 'Kikkouden' practiced among court nobles before the Edo era, and paper mulberry leaves were used to write down Tanka ( 31-syllable poem ) poems, instead of colored Tanzakus in those days. Then why did bamboos and Tanzakus suddenly appear as Tanabata decorations?

Edo ( former Tokyo ) at that time, was already quite as large and busy as it is today, and there were many people and goods going in and out of the city. So it would be no surprise if the bamboo decorations used in the rural Tanabata tradition, were brought into Edo by the people coming into the city. As for Tanzakus, there is a theory that its rectangular shape comes from talismans to seal evil spirits, so if this too was brought in from the traditions of farm communities which possesed ancestral worship, it all seem to make sense.

That is to say the Tanabata traditions of farm communities, consisting of 'Tanabatatsume event' based on the 'visitation of God belief', with additional elements of ancestral worship and Buddhist rite Ura-bon-e, finally met in Edo the China-derived custom of 'Kikkouden' which rooted in the urban communities. And it could be thought that these traditions with different backgrounds, later melted into the nationwide event of Tanabata.

It is also an encouraging that the pronounciation of this event Ta-na-ba-ta, is said to come from the 'Tanabatatsume event' in farm communities, while in the 'Gosekku' established in Edo, the Sekku name for July 7th is pronounced Shi-chi-se-ki, although same Kangi characters are used to express both of them.

Inheritage of Traditional Japanese Custom

As we've seen, the very begining of the Japanese Tanabata event goes way back to the 'visitaion of God belief' in farm communities, when rice farming was still in the center of people's living. Then ancestral worship that came out in the world, were added to it as a new element, and later on Buddhist rite Ura-bon-e imported from China were added moreover.

And when this rural culture had been brought into the city, it got together with the China-derived 'Sei-ou-bo Den-setsu ( Queen Mother of the West legend )' and 'Kikkouden', finally descending to the modern Tanabata event. In that sense, the answer to my question about where this event had begun, could be said as the 'visitaion of God belief' that existed in ancient Japan.

In modern Japanese life few homes celebrate Tanabata, and its becoming a more commercial event to attract customers in shopping malls, especially in large cities. But in some local Tanabata festivals, you can still find the elements of ancestral worship or a Buddhist rite in them. In other words, it can be said that Tanabata is a traditional Japanese custom, which came down to today by facing different culture, embracing many elements on its way.

Local Tanabata Festivals

Local Tanabata festivals in Sendai city ( Miyagi prefecture ), Hiratsuka city ( Kanagawa prefecture ) and Ichinomiya city ( Aichi prefecture ) are famous as the three main festivals of Japan, while Tanabata festival in Asagaya ( Suginami ward ) is well known inside Tokyo.

Tanabata festivals held in July

Shounan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri
Date:2006 July 6th (THU) - July 9th (SUN)
Place:Shounan Star Mall
How to Get There:Take JR Toukaidou Line to Hiratsuka station,
and get out from north or east exit.
Take Odakyu Line to Honatsugi,
Isehara, or Hadano station,
transfer to Kanagawa-Chuuou-
Koutsuu-Bus bound for Hiratsuka
station, and get off at the last stop.

Tanabata festivals held in August

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri

Date:2006 August 6th (SUN) - August 8th (TUE)
Place:Shopping Malls in city centers
How to Get There:Take Touhoku Shinkansen to Sendai
station,and take the bus from there to
About 15 minutes walk westward on
foot from west exit.

Asagaya Tanabata Matsuri

Date:2006 August 5th (SAT) - August 9th (WED)
Place:Asagaya Perl Center (Shopping Mall)
How to Get There:Take JR Chuuou Line or JR Soubu
Line to Asagaya station, 2minutes
walk from south exit.
Take subway Marunouchi Line to
Minami-Asagaya, about 10 minutes walk norhtward.

Last Modified Jul.22nd, 2006

Site of Reference

Tanabata-Wikipedia (Japanese)


Tanabata-no-Minzoku-to-Hoshi (Japanese)


Tanabata-Denshou-Zakki (Japanese)


Tanabata-to-Amanogawa-Denshou (Japanese)


Web Links

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri :