The technology for fireworks (hanabi) came to Japan together with firearms in around the 16th century. Firework displays became popular in the middle of the Edo period (1603–1868), in the 18th century. In 1733, the first public fireworks display in Japan was held in the Ryogoku area of Edo (now called Tokyo), and was known as the “Ryogoku Hanabi.” Firework rockets were first launched at a festival marking the beginning of the summer pleasure boat season. The display was thought to appease the spirits of people killed by famine and infectious diseases. Before long firework shows became an established summer tradition, coloring the night sky.
Point 1: Endless Color Variations
The fireworks enjoyed by the people of the Edo period were colored a subdued orange. They were known as wabi (literally, “harmonious fire”) and were made using charcoal.
By the late 19th century, the importation of potassium chlorate—which is used in matches—made possible the development of hanabi in a range of colors, produced by burning various metallic compounds.
Two components of fireworks are hoshi (stars), which are the powdered pyrotechnic fuels, and wariyaku, (explosives), which cause the fuels to explode in all directions when lit with a flame. It requires a high degree of skill and artistry to pack these fuels and explosives within a ball-shaped firework so that they do not shift inside.
【Fireworks】colorOriginal Source: Wabiya
Point 2: Perfectly Circular Chrysanthemums
Japanese fireworks are famous for their round forms, which are made to appear round from any angle—be it from the front, behind, above, or below. They are also praised for the way that their scattered stars disappear all at once.
【Fireworks】shapeOriginal Source: Beniya Aoki Fireworks
This kind of firework is ball-shaped, filled with even smaller ball-shaped fireworks. Such fireworks can go off in a variety of different ways, such as with several small fireworks all going off at once.
This kind of firework, with its slowly cascading bands of light, was named for its resemblance to the banged bob hairstyle once worn by the young attendants of courtesans. It is also called shidare yanagi, or weeping willow.
Point 3: Admiring Fading Sparks of Light
Sparklers (senko hanabi) are the best-known Japanese handheld fireworks. They are appreciated for the changing shapes of their sparks as they burn down.
Senko hanabi, or sparklers, got their start in the Edo period, when people put gunpowder on the end of pieces of straw, stood them up in incense burners, and watched them burn. They reportedly were given the name senko hanabi (stick incense fireworks) because they resembled the incense sticks offered on Buddhist altars.
There are two main types of senko hanabi. They are the subote botan, made with straw, and the nagate botan, made with washi (handmade Japanese paper). Subote botan is the original form of senko hanabi, and it has been a favorite mainly in Western Japan, where there is a lot of rice straw available. Nagate botan sparklers are made in the Kanto region where a lot of paper is made, and where washi was used in place of straw.
The appearance of the sparks emitted by senko hanabi changes as they burn down. Each stage of burning can be described with a poetic name, such as botan (peony), matsuba (pine needle), yanagi (willow), or chirigiku (scattered chrysanthemum).
【Fireworks】Senko hanabiNHK Educational
National Diet Library Digital Collections
Beniya Aoki Fireworks
Tsutsuitokimasa Fire Works
Photography by Tadayuki Minamoto
Music by Ryu (Ryu Matsuyama)
Maezaki Shinya, Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University
M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum
Produced by NHK Educational Corporation