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“Japanese Mass Entertainment”

HANABI - Japanese Fireworks


A number of fireworks had been displayed across Japan this summer like always. Sparks of brilliant colors and roars vibrating the sky have been the seasonal feature in Japan for centuries, stealing the hearts of innumerous people, for many times, with its grand scale, gorgeousness and above anything the transience of the split-second beauty.

This time, let us have a look at the Japanese summer entertainment, hanabi.

By hanabi I mean uchiage-hanabi which is fireworks display, or huge fireworks shot up in the sky by professional craftsmen. Each uchiage-hanabi is made into a shell called tama filled with gunpowder called hoshi and is fired up in the sky using cannons. The fuse on each shell is also lit at the same time as firing the cannon, all calculated so that the tama will explode when it reaches the right height and let the hoshi spread in the right directions. There are many kinds to hoshi – some burn leaving trails, some burst double and triple as they fall, and some others change colors. Naturally, the most important part throughout the process – from filling the shell with gunpowder to firing it – is where the gunpowder is being filled for it must be filled evenly, and that’s where the craftsmen’s skills show.

The majority of the Japanese fireworks spread out concentrically and the shells are most times perfect orbs. On the contrary, a lot of the fireworks outside of Japan do not spread out into concentric rings or circles and the shells are shaped like cylinders. Cylinder shells create fancier and more gorgeous fireworks for it allows more gunpowder, but is said to be very difficult to make the colors change when they spread.
Japan too, in the older days had very few fireworks that explode concentrically for its difficulty in skills, but when the 12th-generation Master of Kagiya Yahei acquired the technique during the Meiji period the trend turned to the concentric ones at once.

As a tradition, the size of the tama has been expressed in units of sun and shaku. The smallest is the nisundama (aka 2-go-dama) which its diameter is approximately 6.06cm (slightly smaller than 2 and a half inches) growing larger to nishakudama (20-go-dama: 60.6cm), sanshakudama (30-go-dama: 90cm) up to yonshakudama (40-go-dama: 121cm). When the nishakudama explodes, it creates a circle of about 500 meters in diameter.

Evaluations of fireworks are done accordingly to the following points:

How “steadily” it “sits”
When the shell explodes at the peak of its rise, it is described as having “a steady sit”.
This is a key factor to the perfect spread of the colors.

Does it have a “bon” (bon is a round tray)?
Whether the firework has or does not have a perfectly round spread like a tray.

Does it have a clean disappearance?
Do all the sparks (hoshi) turn the colors at the same time as they are supposed to be, and
have distinct colors? Do they disappear at the same time?
(There are some that are made to disappear unevenly, one after another)

Is it not “missing a tooth”?
Do each hoshi have vivid and distinct colors? The way the hoshi is designed precisely
reflects the skill and identity of each craftsman.

Having these points in mind when watching the fireworks will allow you to have a deeper and more interesting look at them.
In the next entry, let’s go over some other fireworks besides uchiage-hanabi and the history of fireworks in Japan, observing how it developed in Japanese culture.


Photo: Kanmon Kaikyo Hanabi (fireworks)
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