Thursday, 19 January 2017


The sounds of thunderous booms, crackles and pops might have evoked natural fear, but the spectacular flashes, sparkles, and fizzles of fireworks superimposed against a backdrop of billions of celestial stars had been well worth the risks of danger. So thought the Chinese who first invented fireworks solely for amusement. To this very day, fireworks have become traditional entertainment dazzling and mesmerizing millions of Japanese viewers throughout the country.

The Japanese considered hanabi (fireworks) as “flowers of fire” — brilliant bursts in various forms and colors of poignant beauty. Like the splendid cherry blossoms’ brief existence, fireworks flash in all their pomp and glory for a fleeting moment only to vanish into thin air. Since fireworks displays have become such popular events, it’s common to see many people strolling in yukatas (cotton kimonos), drinking cold beer and carrying uchiwas (round-shaped fans) — everyone from the neighborhood turned up for the festivity on muggy summer nights.

In the past, firework performances were held as exclusive entertainment for the privileged class. After wining and dining on a boat, the daimyos and their lovely courtesans often watched fireworks hurled into air as they drifted along the Sumida River. Hence, shooting fireworks along a river has become a traditional practice. In fact, fireworks show over the Ryogoku Bridge on the Sumida River marks the opening ceremony of the boating season.

Fireworks would not be what it is today without the contribution of two great craftsmen — Kagiya and Tamaya. Not only did they elevate the art of fireworks but also promote fireworks status as a popular diversion among the commoners. Dexterous in pyrotechnics, Kagiya started a family business in 1659, which rapidly expanded along with his fame and influence in society. As an apprentice of Kagiya, Tamaya soon became a master in his own right, even surpassing the wizardry of his former teacher. Trying to outdo his old master, the ambitious Tamaya often challenged Kagiya to stunning fireworks performances in public. In a twist of fate, Tamaya’s popularity came abruptly to an end when one of his innovative experiments caused a disastrous fire that burned village houses to the ground. Consequently, he was banished and his family heritage ruined, but his legacy lives on. To this day, many of Tamaya’s exquisite fireworks achievements engrained in ukiyoe (woodblock prints) are sold in souvenir shops.

With the public’s obsession with fireworks, it’s not surprising that Japanese fireworks have evolved into an art of its own. The Japanese created the fabulous design of a three-dimensional global dispersion that resembles a chrysanthemum, one of the most elegant presentations in pyrotechnics. The firework shell is globular packed with several layers of different colors of powder to alter the hue of illumination while burning in the air. When the casing explodes, each star uniformly positioned around the core is strewn into space in equal distance from the center of the blast.

The Japanese fireworks fall mainly under three categories based on different scattering results: warimono, kowarimono, and pokamono. The warimono bursts into sizzling stars distributed in equal distance from the center to resemble petals of a chrysanthemum. The key to projecting a large circular distribution effect lies in the balance of tension between the thickness of the shell casing and the strength of the detonation. The magnificence of this rupture stems from the diverse color coordination and smaller additional cores in the center of the firework bloom. Instead of one awesome floral blossom, the kowarimono ejects a multiple of tiny chrysanthemums blooms all at once. Unlike the floral shower, the pokamono splits into two hemispheres while in the air, casting stars in one direction as sparks fly erratically and part as traces of smoke.

Fireworks with the state-of-the-art techniques are grabbing much attention nationwide. The special effects of starmine, a succession of launches for speed and rhythm, or the water-born fireworks, a fountain spraying out a shower of sparks, have added a new dimension to the art of pyrotechnics. Even more astounding, the daylight fireworks streak through the cloudless blue sky like lightning bolts in Technicolor. The popularity of creative firework designs has inspired replications of computer graphic designs of swirls and lines, as well as fueled patterns of familiar figures in an assortment of colors, such as, a butterfly, snail, hat, fish, and even a smiley face.

Over the years, the Japanese pyrotechnicians have consistently awed the crowds with new designs and improved techniques for a more fantastic and sophisticated display. In fact, the pyrotechnic artists exhibit their skill and ability at the annual firework display competitions held throughout Japan. The widely known contests draw thousands of spectators to the Starmine Concourse in Ise City, Mie Prefecture, the Large and Consecutive Fireworks Contest in Tsuchuira City, Ibaragi Prefecture, and the most stupendous one of them all, the Original Fireworks Contest in Omagari City, Akita Prefecture.

Although fireworks performances can be seen almost anywhere in Japan, the most celebrated ones will make you come back for more. The magnificent sanjakudama, a single massive firework rising to the height of 600 meters with a spread of 650 meters across the sky, will guarantee to enrapture you in Nagaoka City of Niigata Prefecture. The artistic endeavors of sophisticated, imaginative and fascinating fireworks will enthrall you at the Fireworks Art Celebration at Perfect Liberty. The fireworks with a water theme will captivate you at the renown lakes and seashores: the Fireworks Festival at Lake Suwa, the Bayside Fireworks Display in Yokohama, the seaside Fireworks Display in Kamakura, and the Waterborn Fireworks Display in Miyajima.

As a tradition, fireworks have evolved over hundreds of years, becoming highly entertaining, enticing, and ever increasingly adored by the Japanese. Emulating the beauty of nature, a spectacular hanabi is like a photo worth a thousand words.

(First published on, 2004)