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Tanabata (Star Festival)

Type of Holiday: Folkloric
Date of Observation: July 7
Where Celebrated: Japan
Symbols and Customs: Bamboo, Kusudama, Magpies, Mulberry Leaves
Colors: The colored strips of paper that are used to decorate the BAMBOO branches that are displayed during the Tanabata festival come in five colors: green, yellow, red, white, and dark blue (or purple) as a substitute for black. They were originally colored threads representing the cloth that the Weaving Girl in the legend used to make for the gods.


Tanabata, which means "Weaving Loom Festival," is a Japanese festival based on an old Chinese legend about two lovers who were parted. The daughter of the celestial emperor, Tentei, lived on the eastern bank of the River of Heaven (also known as the Milky Way), where she spent her days weaving the cloth needed by the gods who lived in her father's mansion. Known as Shokujo or the Weaving Girl, she was betrothed to Kengyu, a simple cowherd. Their honeymoon lasted so long that they neglected their other duties: Kengyu's cows grew thin, and the gods complained that they didn't have enough clothing. In a fit of anger, Tentei punished the couple by forcing them to live on opposite sides of the River of Heaven, allowing them to see each other only once a year, on the seventh night of the seventh moon. Since there was no bridge across the river, a flock of MAGPIES extended their wings to form a bridge that the Weaving Girl could walk across. The lovers wept so hard when they were forced to leave each other that it provided the fields with abundant summer rain.

There are many versions of this legend throughout China and Korea. It may have been linked to an ancient fertility rite, and several generations ago it was still common in rural parts of Japan for young men and women to climb a nearby mountain on the night of Tanabata and sleep there together. The fact that the hero of the legend is a cowherd would appear to support this theory, since cows and bulls were a well-established symbol of fertility. In rural areas, the Tanabata festival was observed by planting young trees in fields and gardens where they could protect the crops from harmful insects.

The Japanese took over what had been essentially a Chinese festival in 755 C . E ., and eventually it was declared one of the five most important festivals of Japan, along with OSHOGATSU or New Year's Day, HINA MATSURI (Doll Festival), Tango No Sekku (Boys' Festival; see KODOMO-NO-HI), and the CHRYSANTHEMUM FESTIVAL . Today it is primarily a women's and children's festival, since the Weaving Girl is the patroness of women and of needlework. At one time the festival was observed with embroidery contests and needle-threading competitions: Only a superior needlewoman could thread a needle while holding it under a table or while sitting in a room lit only by a glowing ember or by moonlight. But today the primary activity is laying out offerings to the Star Goddess or Weaving Girl, consisting usually of watermelons, cakes, and various feminine toilet articles such as combs, mirrors, and rouge-pots. Unmarried girls typically lay out their offerings in sets of seven, one for the Weaver Princess and the others for her six sisters. In more educated households, there may be a koto (harp) and a flute laid out with the rest of the offerings to symbolize the "harmony" of music and of a happy marriage. In cities and towns, people often go to the theater to see a special play, "Crossing the Milky Way," which is performed only on this holiday.

Tanabata was observed on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month until use of the Gregorian calendar transposed it to July 7. Those who observe the festival believe that if the night is cloudy or rainy, the magpies will not form their bridge, and the celestial lovers must wait another year.



The Japanese consider bamboo a sacred plant, admired for its ability to bend and withstand adversity. But it is also a womanly plant, full of grace and capable of being influenced by wind or soil. It is customary to stick branches of freshly cut bamboo in the ground in front of the house or to attach them to the doors or the eaves on the day of the Tanabata festival. These bamboo branches were originally decorated with multicolored threads in honor of the Weaver Princess. Today these threads have been replaced by strips of paper in many different colors, which are believed to scare off evil spirits by fluttering in the wind. Love poems may be written on some of the strips, or poems in praise of the Weaver Princess. Children sit around the table on the eve of the festival and, with their parents' help, try to compose these poems, although sometimes they are copied out of anthologies. Other symbolic items may be hung in the bamboo branches as well, such as a crane (for long life), a brush (for improvement of calligraphy), a net (for good crops and a bountiful catch), a kimono (for protection of the body), a lottery basket (for luck), and a money pouch (for the spirit of saving).

Like other forms of greenery associated with spring and rebirth, the branches serve as a reminder of the life-giving qualities of bamboo, which spreads very rapidly. On the day after the festival, the branches are taken down and thrown in the nearest river, where they are allowed to float away with the current.


Kusudama are balls or pompoms made from paper, cloth, or celluloid with long tassels of many colors. The original kusudama were medicinal balls made of herbs and used to get rid of evil spirits and ward off illnesses. The emperor would give them to his guests and noblemen, but eventually they became common household ornaments and were often used as playthings for children.

In the Japanese city of Sendai, where Tanabata is a very elaborate celebration observed a month later than usual (August 6-8), colorful kusudama are hung all along the streets and in train stations, a testament to the Japanese love of papercraft.


Crows, magpies, and ravens were interchangeable in China and Japan. These birds were all regarded as messengers of the gods, and they possessed supernatural powers enabling them to predict the future. Although all three are considered birds of ill omen, under certain circumstances they can prophesy happiness as well. The magpie in particular is associated with good news or the arrival of a guest. The joy it symbolizes is often associated with marital bliss, due to its role in the legend of the cowherd and the weaver.

According to legend, magpies cannot be seen in the trees after the hour of noon on the day of the Tanabata festival. If any are spotted, children throw stones at them Tanabata

to punish them for not doing their duty. They are supposed to be up in heaven, helping to build a bridge across the Milky Way for the thwarted lovers.

Mulberry Leaves

On the night of Tanabata, people used to dip leaves from a mulberry tree in a large bowl of water while standing outdoors and studying the reflection of the stars on the water's surface. The way the leaves behaved and the appearance of the water were then interpreted as omens regarding marriage, offspring, and prospects for the rice crop. Since the mulberry tree was connected with the making of silk in China (silkworms feed on mulberry leaves), it was a natural symbol to use on a day devoted to a weaver of cloth.

The custom of "reading" mulberry leaves on Tanabata is rarely practiced nowadays. It survives only in very rural areas of Japan.


Araki, Nancy K., and Jane M. Horii. Matsuri Festival: Japanese-American Celebrations and Activities. San Francisco: Heian International Pub. Co., 1978. Bauer, Helen, and Sherwin Carlquist. Japanese Festivals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. Bredon, Juliet, and Igor Mitrophanow. The Moon Year: A Record of Chinese Customs and Festivals. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1927. Casal, U.A. The Five Sacred Festivals of Ancient Japan. Rutland, VA: Sophia University in cooperation with Tuttle, 1967. Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Stepanchuk, Carol, and Charles Wong. Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, 1991.


Japan National Tourist Organization www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/history/traditionalevents/a69a_fes_tanabata.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Tanabata (Star Festival)

July 7, August 6-8
This Japanese festival is based on a Chinese legend of parted lovers who are identified with two of the brightest stars in the night sky. In the legend, Vega, representing a weaver-princess, is permitted by the king to marry the simple cowherd, Altair. But after they marry, the princess neglects her weaving and the herdsman forgets his cows, so the king separates them, making them live on opposite sides of the River of Heaven, as the Milky Way is known in Japan. On the seventh day of the seventh month, the lovers are able to meet when a flock of magpies makes a bridge across the river. If it's rainy, the lovers have to wait another year.
The festival is observed throughout Japan, with people hanging colorful strips of paper on bamboo branches outside their homes. It is an especially colorful occasion in Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture), where it occurs a month later, on August 6-8. The whole city is decked out with paper streamers and works of origami, the Japanese art of paper folding.
See also Chilseog; Seven Sisters Festival
Japan Information Network, Japan Center for Intercultural Communications
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Council for Sendai International Commercial Port Development
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AnnivHol-2000, p. 239
BkFest-1937, p. 199
BkHolWrld-1986, Jul 7
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 540
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 453
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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