Tanabata (七夕) is one of Japan’s five traditional festivals (五節句 gosekku) and is usually celebrated on July 7, or in other areas, on the seventh day of the seventh month based on the lunar calendar, which could in some years fall on the beginning of August. It is based on a Chinese folk legend concerning two stars, Vega, the Weaver Star, represented by the deity Orihime (織姫), and Altair, the Cowherd Star, represented by Hikoboshi (彦星), who – being lovers separated by the Milky Way (天の川 Amanogawa, the “heavenly river”) – could only meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.
In ancient China, the commemoration of this event was mostly observed by women, who burned incense and prayed to the Weaver Star for success in love and skills like calligraphy, weaving and sewing. The festival was later introduced to Japan, where it blended with the legend of Tanabatatsume, a celestial weaving maiden believed to fashion clothing for the gods. The festival, shortened to Tanabata became one of the annual festivities observed by the imperial court. As Tanabata fell close to the Obon festival for the spirits of the dead, it became associated with specific Shinto rites of purification, and other practices followed when welcoming and seeing off the souls of departed ancestors.
While there are numerous local variations of Tanabata, the display of bamboo branches decorated with long narrow strips of coloured paper (短冊 tanzaku) and other ornaments and talismans is common. The paper strips are inscribed with poems expressing wishes for the fulfilment of romantic aspirations. Legend has it if that the ink for these poems is made of dew gathered from the leaves of the taro plant (里芋 satoimo) on the morning of Tanabata, the writer’s calligraphy will significantly improve. The decorated bamboo plant is tied to a pole and placed in front of the house.
At the end of the festival, the bamboo branches are either thrown in the river to be carried away to dispel misfortune or are placed in rice paddies as a means of repelling insects or as a thanksgiving offering for a bountiful harvest. Sometimes the display of bamboo branches has the function of yorishiro (依り代), places or objects that can be inhabited by the ancestral spirits during religious ceremonies; thereby their disposal in a river corresponds to rites of purification by water (禊 misogi) in Shintō.
Other rites of ablution related to Tanabata are the ceremonies of Tanabata bune (boat) and Tanabata ningyō (doll), in which straw figures of humans and animals are set afloat in small boats, thus transferring human sins and the stain of evil onto the figures and discarding them. This kind of rite is called nemuri-nagashi (眠流し, lit. “floating away sleep”), based on the notion that evil or misfortune could be cast off like shaking off harmful sleep.
Mainly famous for their Tanabata Festivals are the cities of Sendai (taking place around August 7) and Hiratsuka (around July 7).