Fireworks were displayed across Japan simultaneously on 24 July to mark the Tokyo Olympics, which would have started on the day if the games had not been put off by one year.
In the event organised by the Junior Chamber International Japan, fireworks were set off at 117 of the planned 121 locations in all of the country’s 47 prefectures but one from 8 pm that evening.
The locations were kept secret because public disclosure would have drawn crowds, raising coronavirus infection risks.“We could think of no better day than this” to encourage the public to move ahead toward a post-pandemic future, according to chamber member Takashi Kitaguchi, involved in the planning and conduct of the event.
Where did the idea germinate? It would not have been safe to keep the explosives ordered for the Olympics opening scheduled for July 2020 on the shelf until the Games eventually slated now for next year begin; so organisers in Tokyo decided to go ahead with the display.
There has been a minor controversy in media over the last few days that the video of the event was actually computer simulated from a 2015 event organised in commemoration of Mount Fuji's World Cultural Heritage registration but Japanese authorities have confirmed that the fireworks did take place.
Not the first event of its kind
A precursor of sorts had already been organised by pyrotechnics expert Kohei Ogatsu and 10 of his other colleagues from the industry who decided to organize a surprise event that would briefly light up the skies around Japan, and generally lift the national mood saddened by the cancellation of the Olympics, and the prevalent pandemic. On 1 June, they set off fireworks simultaneously in Tokyo and other locations for five minutes, but with little prior notice so as to avoid drawing crowds of spectators.
Designed to 'raise spirits as the nation struggles with the coronavirus pandemic', the event also recalled Japan's first-ever fireworks event, which was held in 1733 following an outbreak of cholera to pray for the souls of those who died and for an end to the disease.
Ogatsu will soon be joining a similar project later this summer to be organised by a group based in the Akita Prefecture city of Daisen, home to the annual Omagari fireworks contest, one of Japan's major crowd-pullers.
Shinji Togashi of The Hanabi Support Project said the initiative has several purposes - to cheer up and inspire the public amid the pandemic, give a boost to the struggling fireworks or 'hanabi' industry, and preserve the art and culture of Japanese fireworks. This event will see fireworks launched simultaneously at locations around the country for a 10-minute period on a given day in August, but with the date, time and venues kept secret.
The project has in fact turned to crowd-funding to help pay for the displays and support the pyrotechnics industry reeling from the impact of the virus. Those who contribute will receive edited footage of the event, among other rewards. As of mid June, 81 fireworks makers and other businesses from 29 of Japan's 47 prefectures have said they will participate in the event."Fireworks give us comfort, hope and strength, as well as the will to carry on for tomorrow," Togashi san said.
Hanabi – old Japanese tradition
The word Hanabi is made up two words, hana meaning ‘flower’ and bi meaning ‘fire’. Hanabi simply means ‘fireworks’.
Hanabi is originally a Chinese invention. The first appearance of hanabi in a Japanese historical document dates back to 1532 AD when Chinese performers presented a fireworks show before a Japanese aristocrat. According to historical records, those fireworks were not exactly the fireworks we see today, but something more like a magic show.
The Japanese fireworks of today have their direct origin in the Edo period. Toy fireworks started to appear in the 17th century and the first fireworks show for the public took place in 1733 on the bank of Sumida River in Edo (former name for Tokyo). Barring rare exceptions, these fireworks continue to be held every year, with more and more pomp and show.
Fireworks or hanabi in Japan were originally supposed to ward off evil spirits but over time they became an integral part of Japanese summers. Today, hundreds of firework shows are held every year across the country in very many cities, mainly during the summer holidays in July and August, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators. On the other hand, fireworks are not typically used to celebrate New Year, surprising as it may seem.
The firework shells vary in size and intensity, ranging from small inconsequential ones to the world record holding Yonshakudama shells which are an impressive 1.2 metres in diameter and weigh several hundreds of kilograms. The most common are star-mines, which are spherical shells that have a variety of burst patterns. The spectacular ones include the famous Niagara sparklers that are usually set under bridges to create cascading waterfalls. There are also formed shells that burst into familiar shapes such as hearts, smiley faces and cartoon characters.
A secondary attraction of these fireworks is the relaxed festival atmosphere that comes with them. People dress up in yukata (informal cotton kimono) and streets are lined by food and game stalls. The firework shows themselves typically start some time after sunset and last one to two hours. Many of the longer shows are simply broken up into multiple shorter show segments. They often end with a mind-blowing grand finale consisting of hundreds of hanabi shells blown up simultaneously. Popular firework shows tend to be very crowded. The competition for good viewing spots can sometimes get obnoxious, and families often show up hours in advance to reserve the best spots for themselves.
Besides the famous public hanabi, Japan has also had a culture of toy fireworks. Young parents enjoying toy fireworks with small children in their backyard has been somewhat of a stereotyped scene of the summertime of a happy Japanese family. But today birth rates are declining; there are fewer children; children have many other things to do besides playing with toy fireworks; and sadly young parents can no longer afford a house with a backyard. So, the toy fireworks market is almost dead.
In the last few years, however, there has seen the revival of senkouhanabior ‘incense stick fireworks’ because of persistent efforts by enthusiasts to recreate and reproduce the delicate sparklers of their childhood.
Hanabi is a visual delight. Not to be missed if you happen to visit Japan in the summers, when the world reverts to normal.
Adversity should not subdue
The Olympics hanabi of last month are a salutation to the Japanese ability to maintain their poise even in the face of adversity. The fireworks served to lift the mood and also helped perhaps the evil spirits fanning the current epidemic.
These are the small nuances of Japanese traditions that make them the unique race they are: so technology driven, yet so anchored in customs of yore.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal is a Nipponophile who has visited Japan over a hundred times; he is former Chairman of Dentsu India.