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Tanabata: The Yin and Yang of Japanese Holidays

How much does Japan's star festival actually have to do with the stars?

By 5 min read

On July 7, the Japanese Hoshi Matsuri (star festival) called Tanabata is celebrated. The streets of Hiratsuka in Kanagawa Prefecture will be lined with food carts visited by young women in yukata (traditional summer clothes) and the young men escorting them.

Millions of Japanese people all over Japan will enjoy one of the first festivals of the summer. Children will hang tanzaku (wishes written on strips of paper) on tree branches, and adults will nostalgically recall the summer festivals of their own youths.

If the sky is cloudless, those with romantic inclinations will look expectantly at the sky to see two specific stars on opposite sides of the milky way galaxy.

Star-crossed lovers

It is an illustration of a Tanabata illustration.

The legend behind the Japanese star festival is that a herder boy, Hikoboshi, and a weaver girl, Orihime, fell so deeply in love with each other that they neglected their jobs causing great trouble in their respective professions and forcing their superiors to separate them for all but one night of the year. On that specific night the lovers, represented by two actual stars, Altair and Vega, are said to be allowed to approach the heavenly river that separates them to cast longing eyes upon one another, and by doing so, lessen the pain in their lonely hearts.

Variants of this sad love story have been told and celebrated throughout Asia for centuries. Somehow this story, most likely originating in China and first recorded thousands of years ago, has been interpreted as a story of hope and endless fidelity for the most impossible of romantic relationships. In a sense, it teaches the importance of sincerity, constancy of heart, and eternal fidelity. It inscribes this lesson of the importance of love in the natural movement of the stars. In other words, nature reveals the truth and value of true love ‘til death do you part.

The brightest stars in the summer sky

The Shonan Hiratsuka Star Festival in Kanagawa.

It is often taken for granted that the date for the festival, July 7, was chosen because it is the actual annual date that Altair and Vega are closest to each other, separated only by a hazy band of starlight, which represents the river in the story. However, this is not really an astronomical fact, and even ancient stargazers knew this not to be true. The two stars in question are in adjacent constellations that are visible in the northern hemisphere throughout the year. They are particularly bright and noticeable in the eastern sky from mid-June. By the end of the summer, they have moved to the southern sky.

Throughout summer, the stars maintain the same physical relationship with each other in the sky. People in non-East Asian countries use those stars as Milky Way locators because they are the brightest stars on both sides of a hazy stream of light. I suppose if you only look for them on this one particular night of July 7, then the seeming veracity and metaphoric power of the story remain the same. Be that as it may, the origin of the date of Japan’s star festival does not lie in the stars.

Daoism in Japan

Seitenkyu, a Taoist temple in Sakado, Saitama.

So, the question remains; why is July 7 the date for this festival? The answer is that July 7 was already a designated special day, and as such, stood in need of a festival to be celebrated on it. The reason for this lies in ancient China and the religion and philosophy of nature that helped the world make sense and provide meaning for the people of that time and place.

That system of making sense of the world is sometimes called Taoism, now also spelled as it is pronounced, Daoism.

Chinese Daoist thought was imported into Japan beginning in the early centuries of the first millennium, that is, almost two thousand years ago. Important to this imported line of thought is the adherence to a belief in a certain type of numerology. The numbers one through nine, in particular, have a magical relationship and the individual numbers point to aspects of nature and humanity.

Yin yang numerology

The signs are in the stars.

The concept of yin and yang, simply put, asserts that an effective way of understanding the world is to understand nature as being composed of opposite characteristics and having opposing tendencies. For example, “yin and yang” are easily understood as “female and male,” or “dark and light.” Applying yin and yang thought to Daoist numerology produced the idea that odd numbers have “yang” qualities and even numbers have “yin” qualities.

The dates January 1, March 3, May 5, July 7 and September 9 were thought to have special “natural” power because they are double yang numbers. As such, the cultures that adopted this numerological thought (Japan included) attached important festivals to those dates.

January 1 was the day the New Year was celebrated. March 3 was the day that girls were celebrated, resulting in the Japanese doll festival in Japan. May 5 was originally boys’ day and only recently was changed to Children’s day. July 7 became the day to celebrate love and lovers, and finally, September 9, called Double Yang Day, was a day to celebrate ancestors. Recently, in China, November 11 has become singles’ day, while in Japan it is Pocky Day.

When legend becomes fact

Wishes on tanzaku in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, California.

Cultural legends and stories become attached to patterns of nature. Some scholars claim that the story of the birth of Christ came to be celebrated when it is, because of the winter solstice, which was already celebrated by pagans. This information about possible inaccuracies in the Tanabata love story isn’t meant to “debunk” the importance of the celebration.

It is good and proper to commemorate and celebrate eternal love and fidelity. It is good to root for “star-crossed” lovers, Japan’s Romeo and Juliet. And, if you want to celebrate love on the night of July 7 every year, more power to you! Happy Tanabata!

Have you celebrated Tanabata in Japan? Let us know in the comments!

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