Tanabata and the Customs involving Tanzaku

Tanabata, which falls on July 7th in modern times, is one of the more anticipated holidays during the summer. It is especially a major attraction for kids, as they partake in this during school. One aspect to Tanabata’s popularity is due to its relatively fun & involving practices. Along with learning about the stories involving star viewing and actually experiencing this with telescopes, kids also take part in tanzaku (短冊), where they engage in small crafts and decorate the sasa leaves on the bamboo stalks.

A starry night sky, and papers of wishes hung among sasa leaves.

For this article, we will look into the latter, and learn about what tanzaku is, its history, and other crafts that are similar to it.

MEANING BEHIND TANZAKU

Tanzaku (短冊) means “strips”, as in strips of paper. On the day of Tanabata, kids write their special wishes on strips of colored paper, which are then hung on sasatake (笹竹), which are stalks of bamboo that have sasa leaves. It is a spectacular sight to see bamboo stalks covered with numerous tanzaku. Usually, those who are learning writing, or going to private school at a temple, would do this during Edo period. For the sake of success in their academics and calligraphy, they would partake in this practice of tanzaku.

One of the origins to tanzaku is thought to have started from a unique practice of writing on the large green leaves of sato imo (里芋, type of Asian potato). The practice involves waiting for water from the morning dew to form on these leaves from the cool air the night before. Then one would take ink, and begin writing different kanji as a form to wish for improvement in one’s calligraphy skills.

The reason behind using water that had naturally formed is due to the divine symbolism of sato imo leaves; the water is seen as coming down from the heavens, which the leaves can naturally hold within its center. Plus, the leaves are big enough to be used as umbrellas.

It is said that due to this origin, the wishes made on Tanabata are not the needy ones, but instead are those that are focused on improvement in one’s skills or abilities.

On a separate note, tanzaku is kept up on their bamboo display during an entire day, even throughout the night. On the next day, all the tanzaku are removed and the bamboo stalks are disposed of. In the past, the tanzaku would be cleansed in a river, then brought to a local shrine or temple, where they would then be placed into a bonfire so that the wishes may rise up and reach the gods so they may be granted.

ROLE OF GOSHIKI

Generally, the paper strips used as tanzaku come in 5 colors. This color variation is called “goshiki” in Japanese. The use of the 5 colors is derived from the ancient practice of Inyō Gogyōsetsu, which originated from China. These 5 colors are green (青/緑)¹, red (赤)², gold (黄), white (白), and black (黒). These colors represent the elements (or elemental flow) that influence both life and the world as taught in Inyō Gogyōsetsu. These elements are wood (木), fire (火), earth (土), metal (金), and water (水)³.

Tanzaku in the general 5-color scheme. Click on each one to see their full size.

An interesting note is that for the practice of Tanabata, the color black has been replaced with purple. So it is most common to see the strips of paper in the colors green, red, gold, white, and purple⁴. Here’s what each of the colors stand for, and how they influence what type of wish one would make:

  • GREEN: Improving one’s traits as a person
  • RED: Having the ability to maintain respect to our parents and our ancestors
  • GOLD: Being able to treat others well by improving relations
  • WHITE: Living up to our obligations and responsibilities
  • PURPLE: Excelling in our academics

This was the role the colors originally assumed. Nowadays this practice isn’t followed so strictly, as anyone can freely use whichever one of the colors they choose for their tanzaku.

OTHER DECORATIONS

Along with tanzaku, there are other types of decorations that were used in the past in conjunction to Tanabata. While these are not part of the general format of celebrating Tanabata, some establishments and events may still incorporate these for the sake of honoring traditional practices, such as street parades.

  • Fuki-nagashi (吹き流し): Long strands of different colored papers joined together, sometimes attached to different types of ornaments such as a star-shaped origami. Based off of colored threads that a seamstress would use, it also acts as a type of talisman to ward off evil.
  • Ami kazari (網飾り): A decoration using a long piece of paper cut in an intricate design in the form of fish wire. This is to wish for successful fishing trips.
  • Orizuru (折鶴): An origami crane. Originally the crane represents a long life. So, with this one would wish for longevity and a healthy life.
  • Kamiko (神衣): An origami kimono that looks like it could fit a doll. Along with wishing for improvements in one’s sewing skills, the kamiko also can double as a charm to attract bad luck, which can then be passed on to a doll.
  • Saifu (財布): An origami wallet or purse. As one would expect, you would hang these when you want to wish for financial gains.

CONCLUSION

This wraps up our article on the finer details of tanzaku and its significance during the Tanabata celebration. An important one in Japan, it is not unusual to see this practice done in other countries. If you had a chance to participate with your own tanzaku, what qualities would you wish to improve on?


1) In older Japanese culture, the word aoi (青い) stood for both blue & green. However, usually it is associated to what we in the West would call “green”. To avoid confusion in modern times, aoi mainly refers to the color blue, while midori (緑) is used for the color green.

2) Quite often, paper that is a pink color is used to represent red.

3) Another set of virtues that comes from Inyō Gogyōsetsu that was attached to the 5 colors was gojō (五常), which means “the natural 5 habits”. Here’s how the same colors represent these virtues:

  • Blue/Green = Respect
  • Red = Benevolence
  • Gold = Righteousness
  • White = Understanding
  • Black/Purple = Belief

With a few exceptions, the color scheme of gojō aligns with that of Tanabata. You can read more on the virtues of gojō in another article on this site here.

4) Depending on preferences, there are variants of this color combination. It is not unusual to also have the following used as tanzaku:

  • blue, red, gold, white, purple
  • blue, red, gold, green, purple
  • green, blue, red, pink, gold, white, purple

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