Fireworks are called “hanabi” or “fire flower” in Japanese. I think it’s a fitting name. The hot, humid summer time in Japan is the season for fireworks, and for watermelon, and for grilled eel (“unagi”). In August one can often find large fireworks festivals or shows being set off in large parks or alongside major rivers. From my balcony in the middle of the city I can even occasionally hear the reverberating boom! of far-off fireworks while hanging up late-night laundry. I think, “Is that thunder? Are the North Koreans attacking?” Then I remember it’s the season for fireworks.
River flood plains are usually deliberately fashioned as park land, used for different kinds of recreation, but also serving as flood control devices. (Flooding is one of the traditional major natural disasters in Japan.) Tens of thousands of spectators gather on muggy August nights along river banks to watch the major shows free of charge. No admission required. Public parks are free. Food concessions are everywhere, just like at a fair in North America. Some people rent boats to watch from the water, eating and drinking as they float.
Fireworks are common in residential neighborhoods, too. They are even for sale in convenience stores, like this photograph shows. I found them in a Family Mart convenience store in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. Of course, fireworks like these do not have much explosive power - almost none at all. What they do is entertain children in their home gardens or in local parks with their sparkle. It is not surprising on a dark summer evening to see a family with young children huddled around some small store-bought fireworks in local parks.
Even after many years here it still feels strange to me to see such a cornucopia of fireworks so easily available after growing up in Canada where fireworks sales are rather strictly regulated. I remember as a child fireworks being available in convenience stores. But that was outlawed in my home province of Ontario long ago, along with other sweet childhood memories like burning autumn leaves in the garden. It always seemed to me that the government was maliciously outlawing pleasant memories for the sake of public safety.
For Japanese fireworks are not just pretty to look at but they are said to make them feel cooler in the intolerable summer heat. The same is true of wind chimes, or “furin,” which are another common summer time item here. The tinkling sound of the wind chimes, like the chirruping of crickets and cicadas, is supposed to evoke feelings of a pleasant breeze. The same is supposed to be true of the site and sound of fireworks. They are supposed to evoke feelings of a cooling breeze. I don’t think it works, but … .
Published in the Tokyo Notice Board magazine August 1-21, 2014.