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“Japanese Mass Entertainment”

HANABI - Japanese Fireworks
vol.2-2

 
 

The first fireworks in Japan had been made in the 16th century, soon after guns were brought into the country. The oldest record of fireworks as a source of entertainment is said to be 1613, when Japan’s first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu viewed fireworks in the Edo Castle. However, there are resources that also tell us that Date Masamune enjoyed viewing them back in 1589, or on April 14th of 1582 the Portuguese Jesuit Missionaries used fireworks at the church in Oita Prefecture. Furthermore, there is even a record that says fireworks were already used at a seasonal festival in either 1558 or 1560 at Yoshida Shrine in Toyohashi City, Aichi Prefecture. Hence, the history of fireworks display has not been made clear in its origin.

As Japan entered the Edo Period – a closed and fairly peaceful era that lasted for 260 years – and the need of guns and gunpowder decreased dramatically, the unemployed people in the gunpowder industry made re-starts as fireworks factories. Fireworks back then were so popular among people from lay people to warriors, bureaucrats and shogun, that the government even issued a law that bans fireworks other than at Sumida River.

The most popular fireworks craftsman in those days was the Sr. Yahei (n.b. the name and thus master title “Yahei” has been succeeded in the following generations) of Kagiya. It is told that Sr.Yahei was not from Edo (present day Tokyo) but from Nara Prefecture (mid-western Japan) and was known for having excellent fireworks creating skills from when he was small.
In 1659, Yahei became successful in Edo with toy fireworks in which he filled a reed-made cylinder with hoshi (gunpowder). Yahei continued to study and improve his skills, and opened a store called Kagiya in Ryogoku.

In the following years, Yahei studied large-scale fireworks and showed his marvelous works at the Water God Festival in 1717. When the country suffered many deaths due to famine in Kansai (west) and cholera in Edo, the 8th shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune held a Water God Festival at Sumida River to console the souls of the dead, with Yahei’s fireworks. This is said to be the beginning of Sumidagawa Fireworks that continues to attract millions of people in Tokyo today.

Another fireworks company that became famous and popular in Edo alongside of Kagiya was Tamaya. Tamaya was opened in 1810 by Seikichi, one of Kagiya’s assistant manager, as an independent branch of Kagiya.

By latter Edo Period both Kagiya and Tamaya had made impeccable success in the fireworks industry in Edo. The Sumidagawa Fireworks was left to these two companies, the upper stream to Tamaya and the lower to Kagiya. When the fireworks spread in the night sky, the audience started to call out “Tah-ma-yaah” and “Kah-gi-yaah” on top of their cheers accordingly to which side of the river the fireworks were shot from, saying “this is Kagiya’s hanabi,” or “this is Tamaya’s.” This is the very origin of the famous phrase “Tamaya, Kagiya” that the Japanese shout out when viewing fireworks.

However in 1843, an accidental fire spread out from Tamaya and burnt not only the store but also half the town. Back then accidental fire was considered a very serious crime, and because it was the night before the shogun left for a visit to a family shrine, Tamaya was given heavy punishment with all of its property taken and the master expelled from Edo.

In those days, fireworks companies like Kagiya were called chonin-hanabi (townsmen fireworks). Besides those townsmen fireworks, there were private fireworks displays competed among feudal lords who had their servant craftsmen make hanabi for them. These are called buke-hanabi (warrior’s fireworks). Warrior’s fireworks were especially popular and gorgeously held in the three domains Kii, Owari and Mito where there were no restrictions in fireworks productions for the domains were ruled by the Tokugawa (shogun) family. The warrior’s fireworks of the Date Clan was also known to be great, reflecting how the clan prospered the most for the first time after the historical figure Date Masamune. It was so popular that in fact, the reputation spread to Edo and people flooded over destroying a bridge nearby the site.
Warrior’s fireworks originated in war signals, therefore developed as fireworks that shoot up high in the sky. As compared to the rather flat fireworks of Edo which were more art-oriented (colors, shape, tricks) the warrior’s fireworks were more plain but grander in scale. Fireworks that Japan enjoys today have taken in both these elements, and developed into a unique high-skilled art.

According to Muto Teruhiko (1921 – 2002), the founder of Japan Fireworks Artists Association (JFAA) and a writer of innumerous documents related to fireworks, uchiage-hanabi (the kind that goes high in the sky and is meant to be displayed in the air) was developed in 1751. What people may have believed to be uchiage-hanabi before then were smaller fireworks that shot out sparks and smoke. On a side note, Kagiya’s 13th generation owner and master Amano stopped producing hanabi (handheld fireworks) during WWII, and has become a uchiage-hanabi-only company since then.

 
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