Friday, July 3, 2009

Hanabi - Fireworks

Since Independence day is coming up and I have received several firework catalogs (how I got on their lists is a mystery), I have been thinking about fireworks. In Japan fireworks are called Hanabi. The literal translation is flower (hana) fire (bi). Personally I think fire flowers sounds better than fireworks does.

Summer time in Japan is season for seeing fireworks, there is a firework show somewhere in Japan every single day of the summer, though fireworks are used year round. Almost every town has its own festivals including fireworks. Fireworks are much easier to get in Japan than they are to get here where I live in the United States. Particularly the smaller ones. Sparklers and smoke bombs are not hard to find where I live, though many places do not carry even them because you have to buy a license to sell them. In Japan, it is easy to find stores that carry a large number of small, hand-held fireworks, such as sparklers, torches, firecrackers, and rockets.

The festivals consist of large fireworks shows, the largest of which use between 100,000 and 120,000 rounds (Tondabayashi, Osaka), and can attract more than 800,000 spectators. Street vendors set up stalls to sell various drinks and food (such as Yakisoba, Okonomiyaki, Takoyaki, kakigori(shaved ice)), and traditionally held festival games, such as Kingyo-sukui, or Goldfish-catching.

Both men and women don Yukata, summer Kimono, or Jinbei (men only) and attend these events, collecting in large social circles of family or friends to sit picnic-like, eating and drinking, while watching the show.

Even though the Chinese were using fireworks since at least the 12th century, the Japanese didn't use them until the 15th century when firearms were introduced by the Portuguese (though gunpowder was known to them since at least the 13th century when China attacked Japan and it is believed ninja used gunpowder for noroshi signal flares and land mine type explosives). How old fireworks and gunpowder is under some debate. Some people think it is over 2000 years old, thought that the first firecracker was discovered by accident by a Chinese cook working in a field kitchen who happened to mix charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter, which were commonly found in kitchens at that time.

The first firework displays in Japan where for the shogun and feudal leaders, later they became common entertainment for the populace at large. Firework displays were particularly popular in Edo during the eighteenth century (though there was the occasional ban, it being a fire threat and the building material was very flammable). The most notable fireworks event during that time was an annual festival at the banks of the Sumida River. Professional fireworks manufacturers would have a competition against one another at that festival.

The Japanese became experts at firework displays. There expertise in fireworks production is sought after all over the world and fireworks makers are frequently invited to display their skills at festivals in other countries. Until the mid-1980's the Japanese were major exporters of fireworks at one time the Japanese represented 80% of the worlds fireworks production (decline was mainly due to the Chinese selling fireworks much cheaper). They were the first country to manufacture fireworks that change colors twice or even three times during a single launch. One common type, the 360-degree blossoms, originated in Japan and has become a global standard for the firework displays.

A good site for a bit more information on Japanese fireworks is: JAPANESE FIREWORKS HOMEPAGE

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