Meaning of Hanabi - A Brief History of Fireworks in Japan

Fireworks or Hanabi which literally means "Flower of Fire (Hana=Flower, Bi/Hi=Fire)" were said to be invented in China during the Song Dynasty(960–1279).  Fireworks were used for various festivities and also they were used in order to get rid of evil sprits and bring good fortune to the people.  The custom to celebrate new year with fireworks was originated from this belief that fireworks could scare away evil spirits.


Amid of this coronavirus pandemic, Ive heard fireworks in Japan were originally used to expel the outbreak of epidemic.  Thus I had some interests in the history of fireworks in Japan and made a video of brief history of Hanabi above.  It was quite interesting and I got the reason why people shout "Tamaya" toward fireworks in Japan.


One of the first documents which mentioned about the usage of the fireworks was a private diary called Kennaiki written by Madenokoji Tokifusa (1395-1457) .  There was an article dated March 21, 1447 says After memorial service at Shojokein Temple which is a Jodo Shu temple, some kind of arts by fire was performed and because it was so splendid like a shooting star, Tokifusa praised and gave award to the people who seemed to be Chinese.    Since there were trade ships going back and forth between Japan and Ming Dynasty during Muromachi era (1336-1573), it is considered that fireworks were brought to Japan during this time.


In 1543, an epoch making event happened in Japan.  A Chinese  ship with Portuguese merchants on board drifted down and for the first time, guns were introduced to Japan.  Soon after this event, many more guns, arts of guns and the way how to make gun were also brought to Japan with Society of Jesus missionaries.  After that, more descriptions of fireworks were seen in the documents and in 1582, a Portuguese missionary used fireworks at the temple for the missionaries which was given by Otomo Sorin who was a well-known Christian feudal lord during Sengoku period in Japan.  Within less than 50 years, guns had become necessary weapon for the battles in Japan.


In the Edo period, when the peaceful era started especially after the big battle at Osaka Castle with Toyotomi Hideyori, guns became not important because of no battle.  As a result, a gunpowder shop specializing in fireworks appeared.  There exists an article to report the Shogunate banned fireworks outside the Sumida River in 1648.  Therefore, fireworks are assumed to have been popular since that time.   Of course, the fireworks at that time was small.   According to "Wakan Sansai Zukai" (written by Yoshiyasu Terashima, an encyclopedia of the Edo period) which was published in 1712, pinwheel called Nezumi-Hanabi (Rat Fireworks) which moves like a rat was introduced.


Fireworks bans were often issued in Edo since it could cause accident and fire which could ruin the city.   Therefore production of fireworks moved to the rural area gradually.


The oldest firework company in Japan which still exist is Kagiya.  In 1659, Kagiya started selling toy fireworks.  In 1810, one of the fireworks craft men of the Kagiya was allowed to be independent and started the company called Tamaya.   Since then, these two companies competed each other and brought much improvement for the fireworks.   

In Japan, when fireworks is launched to the sky, I remember people shout Tamayaaaa toward the fireworks over the sky.  I didnt know why people shout Tamaya and sometimes Kagiya but now I understand it.  This was from the custom by the people of Edo during the fireworks festival that they used to shout either of the two major fireworks companies to express their love or support to one of their favorite fireworks company.   However Tamaya was ordered to close down as a penalty that they caused fire to burn houses in 1843. 


Interestingly after this coronavirus, the roots of Sumida River Fireworks Festival which is one of two major fireworks festivals in Tokyo has been spotlighted.  It is said this festival was started by the 8th Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune who ordered to have a Segaki Service by the river in order to pray and console the souls who passed away by the famine and outbreak of Cholera in 1732.  It is said after the service, Yoshimune sponsored fireworks in order to get rid of the decease.   


Although this story may not be historically true, it is telling us the original important purpose of the fireworks which is to expel the evil spirits by making sound, fire and smoke.   This year many organizations cancelled the Forth of July fireworks in order to avoid crowds of the people, but it is good to know one of the purposes of fireworks is to get rid of the outbreak.