Summertime is Festival Time!

The unofficial Tanabata tree in the Japanese Village Plaza, Little Tokyo. Photo: Carol Cheh.
The unofficial Tanabata tree in the Japanese Village Plaza,
Little Tokyo. Photo: Carol Cheh.

The word matsuri means “festival” in Japanese, and during the summer (natsu), many different festivals are held all over Japan. Individual festivals are often tied to local prefectures, and can go on for days at a time. Family and friends convene to enjoy parades, games, music, food, and dancing.

Two of the biggest and most popular Japanese festivals are Obon, discussed here last week by Mitchell Lee, and Tanabata, a “star festival” that has its origins in an old folk tale about star-crossed lovers. As the legend goes, a prince and a princess once fell so deeply in love that they spent all their time together and neglected their duties. Their angry king separated them by putting them on opposite ends of the Milky Way. They were only allowed to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month.

The word tanabata literally means “the evening of the seventh,” and Tanabata usually begins on July 7, although dates can vary from place to place. In many ways, it is similar to Obon, since the two have fallen so close together historically. One distinguishing feature of Tanabata is the writing of wishes on tanzaku (small pieces of paper) and hanging them on bamboo in hopes they will come true. In Little Tokyo, there is a tree in the Japanese Village Plaza that becomes covered around this time of year with colorful pieces of paper bearing people’s wishes, representing a local adaptation of a favorite custom.

A family poses in traditional garb at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri photo booth. Photo: Daryl Kobayashi.
A family poses in traditional garb at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri photo booth. Photo: Daryl Kobayashi.

Every summer, JANM celebrates the season with its own Natsumatsuri Family Festival, which borrows well-known elements from Japan’s various summer festivals, including Obon and Tanabata. One of the museum’s biggest and most anticipated events all year, Natsumatsuri blends contemporary festivities with Japanese and Japanese American traditions.

This year’s edition, happening on Saturday, August 9, 2014 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., will include taiko performances and lessons, a lecture on obon, a participatory bon odori dance, omikuji fortune telling, a karaoke competition, Hello Kitty photo opportunities, live painting by Perseverance artists, a variety of craft activities for the kids, and much more. It’s free to all visitors, so be sure to bring your family and friends for a great day out!

Esther Shin

Esther graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in the Summer of 2013 with a Bachelor's degree in History and a minor degree in Japanese. She was the curatorial intern at JANM for the 2013 Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship Program, and has also completed a marketing internship at the museum. Esther currently works as a Development Assistant for JANM.

Leave a Reply