Tanabata (Star Festival) (七夕)

Tanabata (Shichiseki) is one of the days of sekku/sechinichi (a day of the turn of the season) in Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Korea. Though it refers to the night of July 7 (lunar calendar), Tanabata Matsuri is held in Japan either on July 7 or a month later on August 7 as Bon festival is also held either in July or in August, after the Meiji revision of the calendar. It is also counted among sekku (seasonal festivals).
In the old days, tanabata (七夕) was written "棚機" or "棚幡,"
Originally, tanabata was a part of the Bon festival and shoryodana (精霊棚) (a shelf for spirits of the dead) and bata (幡) (a kind of flag used for Buddhist events) used to be prepared on the evening of the 7th. It is also said that because the evening of the 7th is written in Chinese character as "七夕," people started to pronounce this Chinese character as "tanabata.". Tanabata was originally an event celebrated in China and was introduced into Japan during the Nara period. The term tanabata was born when the above was combined with Japanese indigenous legend of Tanabatatsume.


Originally it was one of sekku in China and was celebrated on July 7 based on a lunar-solar calendar (old calendar). Based on Chinese calendar, July (old calendar) is the first month of autumn called "moshu" (beginning of autumn) and the seventh is the day of waxing moon, namely the day of the half moon. As July 7 is the day which seven is doubled, it was also called "soshichi" (double seven). According to Nijushi-sekki (24 seasons), the day of tanabata falls around the time of risshu (the first day of autumn).


In Japan, the day of tanabata was July 7 on the Japanese calendar such as on the Tenpo calendar (old calendar) and was celebrated mostly as a part of the Bon festival, which was held on July 15 (old calendar). Because the time of Bon festival split, depending on the regions, into July and August after the solar calendar was adopted in 1873, tanabata is currently celebrated either on July 7 of Gregorian calendar (new calendar) (the night of July 6 depending on events) or on August 7 as a part of Bon festival based on the old calendar (a month later) (mainly, eastern Japan, Hokkaido and Sendai). Even at present, tanabata is celebrated on July 7 of the old calendar in some regions. Although there exists a leap July according to the leap month under the old calendar, July 7 of the leap month is not the day of tanabata because no annual events are traditionally held in a leap month. In recent years, such a case occurred in 2006 (July 31 coincided with July 7 of the old calendar and August 30 coincided with July 7 of the leap month. In this case, the day of the old calendar-based tanabata is only July 31 and tanabata is not celebrated twice a year).

Refer to the entry for 'Bon festival' concerning the difference in the time (date).

Though July 7 of the Gregorian calendar falls on a summer day, July 7 of the old calendar mostly falls after the time of risshu and therefore, the old calendar-based tanabata is a seasonal word for autumn. As July 7 of the Gregorian calendar falls in the midst of the rainy season in most regions of Japan, it is pointed out that this is one of disadvantages in holding traditional events according to the Gregorian calendar.

According to statistics, the ratio of fine weather on July 7 of the old calendar is about 53% (Tokyo) and it is not particularly high. However, as July 7 of the old calendar is the day of the waxing moon, the moon sets below the horizon early and the moonlight rarely hinders the view. The ratio of fine weather on July 7 under the new calendar is low, about 26% (Tokyo). Further, as the phase of the moon on that day is irregular, the Milky Way could be invisible even on a fine day due to the effect of the moonlight. Therefore, as far as the odds of being able to see the Milky Way is concerned, they are higher on July 7 of the old calendar.

Incidentally, if rain falls on the day of tanabata it is called "sairuiu" or "sairuiu" and is believed to be tears which Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair) shed.


It is thought that tanabata originated as the Japanese traditional festival in which people pray for a good harvest to the spirits of ancestors (Bon festival) merged with Kikkoden (Kikoden), a festival imported from China in which women pray for the progress of sewing, and the Buddhist festival of Urabon-e (Bon festival). Tanabata was originally written as 棚幡 and it is also a part of Bon festival even at present. Sasa (bamboo branch) is yorishiro (object representative of a divine spirit) at which shorei (ancestors' spirit) stay.

When the day of tanabata became a special day is unknown. The oldest literature which mentioned the events held on this day was "Simin yueling" (book on agricultural work), a book written by Cui Shi in the Later term of the Western Han period, and according to it, people aired out books on the day.

The legend of the Weaver and the Cowherd first appeared in "The Nineteen Old Poems," compiled during the Han period and selected in "Bunsen (literature)" (Selected Literature), but its relationship to July 7 is not clear. In "Keiso Saijiki" written during the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (China), it was stated that the Cowherd and the Weaver meet on July 7 and on that night, women prayed for the progress of sewing by threading colorful threads into the eyes of seven needles and setting up offerings in the garden. From the above description, the fact that Kikkoden which was held on July 7 was linked with the legend of the Weaver and the Cowherd is clearly understood.
The following description appears in the "Novel (In Un)" written by Inun in the Rikucho Ryo period (Southern court),
"A lady weaver resided in the east of the Milky Way and she was a child of Tentei (God of Hosts). She was always busy weaving hagoromo (feather-robes) of unkin (clouds and brocade) and had no time to make herself up. Tentei felt pity for her solitude and allowed her to marry Qianniulang (the Cowherd) of the west of the river.
When she ceased to weave after being married, Tentei became angry, ordered her to return to the east of the Milky Way and allowed her to meet him only once a year." (itsubun - lost writings) of shichigatsu-ryo in "Getsuryo kogi")
The above is the oldest historical literature that can verify the currently known story of tanabata.

The origin of "tanabata" in Japanese is believed to be either "ototanabata" (ototanabata), which appears in a poem, according to "Kojiki" (The Records of Ancient Matters), written by Ajisukitakahikone when Amenowakahiko died, "ototanabata", which appears in issho-daiichi of ASHIWARA no Nakatsukuniheitei of "Nihon shoki" (Chronicles of Japan) or "tanabata, which derived from shoryodana and bata used for Bon festival. In Japan, tanabata was celebrated during the Nara period as a seasonal event of the Imperial Court. In volume 10 of the "Manyo-shu," some waka poems related to tanabata were compiled including a spring poem 2080 ("We can meet tonight since today is tanabata. From tommorow, however, we have to wait for an another year. A year is long").

Although tanabata was originally one of the court events, it spread in the Edo period among ordinary people as a means of prayer to improve their skills since Orihime (the Weaver) excelled in women's practices such as in weaving cloth.


In the tanabata legend of Japan and China, Vega, first-magnitude star of Lyra, is known as Orihimeboshi (Shokujosei). Orihime was a daughter of Tentei and was a hard-working woman who excelled in weaving. Natsuhikoboshi (Hikoboshi, Kengyusei) is Altair of Aquila. Natsuhiko was also a hard-working man and Tentei allowed their marriage. As their married life was so happy, Orihime ceased to weave cloth and Natsuhiko ceased to raise cows after marriage. Tentei got angry at the above, separated them, each on either side of the Milky Way and permitted them to meet only once a year on July 7. On July 7, they could meet using the bridge on the Milky Way which was built by a magpie which came flying from an unknown place. However, if July 7 was a rainy day and the volume of water of the Milky Way increased, Orihime couldn't cross the bridge and Natsuhiko couldn't meet her. As the above rendezvous is between two stars, tanabata is also called hoshiai (a date between stars). If rain falls on the day, it is called sairuiu. Sairuiu is believed to be the tears that Orihime and Natsuhiko shed.

Though the above is the classical story of the tanabata anecdote, various folk stories based on this anecdote were created at many places in China over a long period of history. These were played at local theaters and became the theme of plays (China). The most famous among them is "Tengahai" (the lovers in the Milky Way), which is a repertoire of Kyogeki. The gist of its story is as follows. Gyuro (Kengyu), a cowherder, stole the clothing of Shokujo, one of Tennyo (celestial maidens), while she was bathing and then married her. Thereafter, Shokujo went up to tenkai (world of heaven) and Gyuro followed her, but they were separated by Seiobo, mother of Shokujo, on the east and west side of the Milky Way. It is Hakucho shojo setsuwa (swan maiden anecdote) which is similar to the Hagoromo legend.

Starry sky

Although the names of star Shokujo and Kengyu firstly appeared in "Shikyo" (Chinese poetry book) compiled in the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period, it is not clear which stars these two pointed to. According to the Tianguan shu of "Shiki" (the Chinese Historical records), Kengyu at the time was Gyushuku and current Kengyu, namely Altair, is a star belonging to the constellation called Kako (drum of the Milky Way). It seems that the star was moved, with the development of the tanabata legend, to a position more suitable for the above anecdote.

As July 7 of the lunar-solar calendar, used in China and Japan, is the day of the waxing moon, such a moon was sometimes likened to a ship. On the day, the moon sets late at night and the Milky Way which has been invisible due to the moonlight, appears. In recent Japan, however, places where the Milky Way is visible are limited even after the moon has set because of light pollution.

Depending on the phase of the moon, the Milky Way is often totally invisible on July 7 by the Gregorian calendar (new calendar) due to the moonlight.


Most shinto rituals are usually held at "predawn night" (at 1 am on July 7) and the festival is conducted from the night of July 6 till the early morning, during the dawn of July 7. As major stars rise around the top of the sky around 1 am, it is the best time to view the Milky Way, Kengyusei and Shokujosei.

By writing wishes on tanzaku (strips of colored paper) and hanging them on bamboo branches is a common practice around the nation. Hanging tanzaku on bamboo branches is a unique Japanese practice and it was created during the Edo period based on bamboo set at the both sides of cogon grass ring for Natsugoshi no Oharae (great purification ceremony). Tanzaku's five colors, which are mentioned in the lyrics of a song "Tanabata-sama," refer to green, red, yellow, white and black based on Gogyo-setsu (the theory of five elements). In China, five colored threads are hung instead of five colored tanzaku. As Kikkoten mentioned above is a festival to pray for improving the technique of the arts, it is believed that wishes to be written on tanzaku are supposed to be about accomplishments.

Tanzaku is also influenced by five colored-segakibata of Buddhism which is used at the Buddhist service for segaki (Hungry Ghosts).

As it is believed that grinding an ink stick with drops of dew formed on the leaves of a sweet potato plant is effective for the improvement of calligraphy, seven leaves of paper mulberry on which waka poems are written are offered.
A waka poem composed by the wife of FUJIWARA no Shunzei remains: "As a rudder (phonetically same as kaji in Japanese) of a boat crossing the river on the day of tanabata, how many years I have offered poems written on the leaves of kaji with the ink ground with drops of dew ?"

It is a common practice to place a bamboo with tanzaku hanging down on July 6 and at seaside regions, to float it on the sea at dawn on July 7. Recently, however, plastic products are often used in lieu of bamboo and accordingly, they seldom are floated on the sea. In some districts, bamboo decorations are displayed on a bridge over a river.

In some regions, the tanabata festival has been united with events of praying for rain or mushiokuri (torch procession of driving away crop-eating insects).

In Hokkaido, a children's event called "Rosoku-morai" (give us candles)" is held on the day of tanabata.

In Sendai City and so on, people eat somen (fine wheat noodles) on the day of tanabata. Some say the reason for eating somen is derived from an ancient Chinese historical fact while others assert that people likened somen to threads and by eating it, they wished to be like Orihime who excelled in sewing skills.

Recently in Taiwan, tanabata is regarded as the day on which men and women exchange gifts, like St. Valentine's Day.

On the other hand, in the case of "Tanabata-matsuri" organized by shopping avenues as an event, magnificent tanabata decorations are placed along the street in the daytime and are used as the setting to attract shoppers and tourists. In this case, attention is rarely paid to the above-mentioned practices conducted during nighttime or shinto rituals. Concerning "Tanabata Matsuri" as an event, refer to the next item.

Tanabata Matsuri in Japan

According to "Koji-ruien" published by Jingu Shicho (Jingu Administration Office), its origin is Shokujo-sai of the Engishiki (an ancient book for codes and procedures on national rites and prayers). Later, it became Tanabata Matsuri (Tanabata Festival).

During the Heian period, Kikkoten was often held in the court and among court nobles. Even at present, the Reizei family has inherited the patterns from those days.

In "Edokanoko" written by Rihei FUJITA in 1687, there is a description saying "On the day of tanabata, children in Edo offer tanzaku". In "Morisada Manko" written by Morisada KITAGAWA, there also is a description saying "The night of July 7 is tanabata. In Osaka, people play throughout the day while beating drums. In Edo, people hang colored tanzaku on a green bamboo and place it high on the roof". The above descriptions indicate that tanabata was already celebrated in Edo as early as during the mid-Edo period and at the end of the Edo period, it also flourished in Osaka.

Other than the above, there are descriptions in "Kiyu shoran" written by Kintei KITAMURA saying "in around 1829 in Edo from recently" and in "Shojitome" saying "July 1841, tanabata is celebrated in July annually." Further, there are descriptions also in "Toto Saijiki" written by Gekkin SAITO saying "July 6, from the dawn of this morning" and in "Kokon Yoranko" written by Hirokata YASHIRO saying "tanabata first appeared in the Engishiki as Shokujo-sai which is held on July 7".

Many "Tanabata Matsuri" that started after the Second World War at many places were organized following the pattern of Sendai Tanabata. The practice of tanabata declined after the solar calendar was adopted in 1873 and such trend was further spurred by the economic downturn after the First World War. Under such circumstances, volunteers in shopping avenues worried about the situation and set big tanabata decorations in 1927. Then, a lot of people visited and the shopping avenue became crowded. Since then, "Tanabata Matsuri" was acknowledged as an event of a shopping avenue which has the ability to attract more customers and has developed as one of city events at present. Kusudama (ornamental balls) used as one of decorations originates from Sendai Tanabata.

Different to festivals using mikoshi (portable shrine) or dashi (float), the "Tanabata Matsuri" is an event with affinity to shopping avenues. The reason for the above is because once decorations were prepared on the preceding day, it can pull in shoppers on the target day without impairing the function of the shopping avenue since additional man power and strict traffic restriction is not required on the day of the festival. Since the restoration period after the war, many shopping avenues throughout the nation, especially those in eastern Japan, have organized "Tanabata Matsuri" following the success in Sendai. Up to now, many of them have developed into city events.

Among them, a combination of shopping avenue's event in the daytime and fireworks at night is often seen. Like Matsuzaka Tanabata Matsuri started in 2001, some cities call their local events, which are not the events of shopping avenue but a combination of stage show and fireworks near the riverside, "Tanabata Matsuri".

Regions where Tanabata Matsuri is held according to the old calendar or a month later

Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture (Tanabata Edoro Matsuri [tanabata painted garden lantern festival]), a tanabata with a 300 year old tradition with its feature of displaying hundreds of garden lanterns on which Ukiyoe bijin (beautiful woman) are painted.

Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture (Sendai Tanabata is one of three famous festivals in Tohoku region and the most famous Tanabata Matsuri in Japan)

Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture (Taira Tanabata Matsuri) former Taira area (Iwaki City)

Mito City, Ibaragi Prefecture (Komon Matsuri)

Tsuchiura City, Ibaragi Prefecture (Kirara Matsuri)

Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture (Kiryu Yagibushi Matsuri)

Sayama City, Saitama Prefecture (Sayama Irumagawa Tanabata Matsuri)

Ogawa-cho, Saitama Prefecture (Ogawa-cho Tanabata Matsuri)

Fujimino City, Saitama Prefecture (Kamifukuoka Tanabata Matsuri) former Kamifukuoka City area
Saturday and Sunday of the first week of August

Mohara City, Chiba Prefecture (Mohara Tanabata Matsuri) for three days ending on the last Sunday of July

Suginami Ward, Tokyo (Asagaya area)

Fussa City, Tokyo (Fussa Tanabata Matsuri)

Sagamihara City, Kanagawa Prefecture

Takaoka City, Toyama Prefecture (Takaoka Tanabata Matsuri) central district of the city

Suzu City, Ishikawa Prefecture (Horyu Tanabata Kiriko Matsuri)

Anjo City, Aichi Prefecture (Anjo Tanabata Matsuri) Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the first week of August

Ichinomiya City, Aichi Prefecture (Orimono Kansha-sai Ichinomiya Tanabata Matsuri) for four days ending the last Sunday of July

Matsuzaka City, Mie Prefecture (Matsuzaka Tanabata Matsuri)

Yamaguchi City, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Yamaguchi Tanabata Chochin Matsuri)

Miki-cho, Kita-gun, Kagawa Prefecture (Miki-cho Ikenobe Tanabata Matsuri)

Oita City, Oita Prefecture (Oita Tanabata Matsuri)

Regions where Tanabata Matsuri is held according to the new calendar

Hakodate City, Hokkaido (Tanabata Matsuri)
It has characteristics similar to Halloween as children visit neighboring houses to ask for candles and cakes while singing "we hang tanzaku on a bamboo at Tanabata Matsuri, give us a piece of candle, not many".

Hiratsuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture (Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri)

Takaoka City, Toyama Prefecture (Toide Tanabata Matsuri) former Toide-cho area (Toide area) July 3 to July 7

Nyuzen-machi, Toyama Prefecture (Funami Tanabata Matsuri)

Shizuoka City, Shizuoka Prefecture (Shimizu Tanabata-matsuri) former Shimizu City (present Shimizu Ward) area

Tokushima City, Tokushima Prefecture (Tanabata Baloon Release) Shinmachibashi Higashi Park area (present central district of the city)
Baloons on which wishes are written are released toward the Milky Way at 7:7:7.

Festivals are held at several places including shrines located in Katano City, Osaka Prefecture (Tanabata Matsuri). Varieties of events are held from traditional shinto rituals to the event of coloring the night of tanabata by lighting candles.

National Tanabata Summit

This is a conference in which municipalities which are organizing tanabata-related events participate for the purpose of information exchange and discussions about the problems. Participants include not only municipalities which are organizing commercial Tanabata Matsuri but also those where traditional tanabata practices remain. The following cities have hosted this conference.

The first conference (August 1996) Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture

The second conference (July 1997) Ichinomiya City, Aichi Prefecture

The third conference (August 1998) Takaoka City, Toyama Prefecture

The fourth conference (July 2000) Hiratsuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture

The fifth conference (2001) Negami-machi, Ishikawa Prefecture (present Nomi City)

The sixth conference (August 2003) Anjo City, Aichi Prefecture

The seventh conference (July 2004) Mohara City, Chiba Prefecture

The eighth conference (July 2005) Ichinomiya City, Aichi Prefecture

The ninth conference (August 2006) Takaoka City, Toyama Prefecture

The tenth conference (July 2007) Hirakata City and Katano City, Osaka Prefecture

Tanabata based on the old calendar

From 2001, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan started to call July 7 of the old calendar as "traditional tanabata" and announced the date of the new calendar day that coincides with it on the grounds that stars are often invisible since July 7 of the new calendar falls in the midst of the rainy season. Being a national institute, however, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan is not allowed to define the day of tanabata based on "the old calendar" since "the old calendar" is not officially used at present. Under such circumstances, it defines "the day of traditional tanabata" as the day which is the nearest to July 7 of the old calendar, "the seventh day after the day of new moon which falls on or before shosho (the moment when the ecliptic coordinates mark 150 degree) of 24 sekki (seasons) and is nearest to shosho."

The dates of "traditional tanabata" (old tanabata) that were announced by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan are as follows.
(all of dates are shown based on Japan Central Standard Time)








Though they have not been announced by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, the following are the dates for the old tanabata that were obtained through calculation.









The phase of the moon on the day of tanabata based on the new calendar

The following chart shows the phases of the moon, their respective names and the easiness to view the Milky Way on July 7 of Gregorian calendar for the coming 10 years. As the brightness of the Milky Way is faint, it is difficult to see it when it's disturbed by moonlight or light pollution. A new moon refers to the moon when its phase is 0, a waxing moon refers to the moon when its phase is 7.5, a full moon refers to the moon when its phase is 14 and a waning moon refers to the moon when its phase is 22.5. The Milky Way is visible for only a limited time around the time of waxing and waning moon and almost invisible around the time of the full moon.

2007/07/07 moon phase 22 (Milky way O)

2008/07/07 moon phase 4 (Milky Way ◎)

2009/07/07 moon phase 15 (Milky Way X)

2010/07/07 moon phase 25 (Milky Way ◎)

2011/07/07 moon phase 6 (Milky Way O)

2012/07/07 moon phase 18 (Milky Way X)

2013/07/07 moon phase 29 (Milky Way ◎)

2014/07/07 moon phase 10 (Milky Way △)

2015/07/07 moon phase 21 (Milky Way △)

2016/07/07 moon Phase 3 (Milky Way ◎)

[Original Japanese]