Stars in your eyes: fireworks in Japan


Living with Tokyo Disney Resort in their midst, residents of Urayasu in Chiba Prefecture can enjoy its fireworks displays every night in summer. Even for them, though, the annual Noryo Fireworks Festival is something else altogether.

From early afternoon on July 27, streams of people in party mood began trickling into the city’s Takasu Kaihin Park, both locals and others from further afield — many of whom had waited in winding lines under the scorching sun for one of the free shuttle buses running from JR Shin Urayasu Station.

Though they looked tired when they got off the buses, with many fanatically fanning their yukata-clad bodies, the atmosphere in the crowd changed instantly and dramatically the moment the first of the night’s 8,500 fireworks rocketed skyward over Tokyo Bay.

Cheers, whistles and applause erupted from the 360,000-strong crowd, as huge pyrotechnic flowers burst into bloom over their heads, and shrieks, whistles and bangs rent the air.

If it sounds very exciting, and hot — it certainly was.

For the next 75 minutes, the spectators, many with beers in hand, whooped and whooed with mounting glee as the show created by Soke Hanabi Kagiya Co., the nation’s oldest fireworks company, lit up the night sky with spectacular starbursts of color.

One person not in party mode, however, was 31-year-old Akiko Amano. As the 15th-generation director of Kagiya, it had been her job to plan the whole show down to the last detail, the last second — and the latest innovation in this art of fire. Then, it was her responsibility, like a conductor, to oversee its orchestration on the night.

Under that kind of pressure, perhaps more than anyone else present Amano welcomed the summer evening’s breeze — a breeze reflected in the name of the event, as noryo means “evening cool.”

Standing there gazing rapturously skyward, Ayako Matsuki, a Urayasu resident who attends the festival every year, says; “Watching fireworks go up with a bang in their breathtaking brilliance at close range is entirely different from seeing them from a distance. I don’t know why, but I need to see fireworks in summer . . . Ah, it was fantastic tonight.”

The same night, only about 10 km northwest of Urayasu, an even bigger crowd — numbering close on 1 million people — thronged both sides of Tokyo’s Sumida River to watch one of the nation’s oldest and most famous fireworks shows, the Sumida River Fireworks Festival. The 20,000-missile display was shown live on nationwide television.

Firing a feudal imagination

It’s amazing that such huge throngs gathered on the same evening to enjoy fireworks — and astonishing to think that Japan has about 7,000 fireworks events every summer.

Indeed, fireworks displays are considered to be one of Japan’s seasonal attractions alongside such activities as cherry-blossom viewing in spring, summer’s matsuri and bon-odori, and appreciating the splendid fall colors.

And as the 340-year history of the Kagiya company suggests, this national love of summer fireworks displays is no new thing. In fact, following the invention of gunpowder and the creation of the first fireworks in Tang-dynasty China (618-907), the first person known to have seen them here was Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo (present-day Tokyo) and established the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate that would rule the nation until 1867. Historical documents speak of a merchant from China putting on a fireworks display for Ieyasu in 1613 to mark the occasion of him entertaining an English visitor.

Gradually, after that, fireworks became more and more popular. The third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-51), was a famous fireworks fan. It wasn’t just the rulers, though, who enjoyed these nocturnal spectaculars: summer fireworks shows began to attract more and more Edo folk seeking relief and distraction from the stultifying summer heat.

“That the summer-night extravaganzas suited the taste of Edokko [Edo natives] is only natural when you consider the character of the people in the capital,” says Masako Watanabe of Fukagawa Edo Museum in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.

“Edokko valued short-lived beauty, such as that of cherry blossoms, which are in their prime for only a couple of days. The enjoyment of fireworks was along the same line,” she says.

Chemical advances

As Edo grew and grew, and the population climbed toward 1 million, in 1733 the eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, established the annual summer fireworks display now known as the Sumida River Fireworks Festival. In fact, what he did was sponsor a summer Water God Festival, with fireworks, to dispel evil spirits and comfort the souls of the dead. The previous year, epidemics in Edo and a nationwide famine had killed some 1 million people.

Now though, the displays that draw so many spectators to this and other similar events around the country have changed dramatically from those almost 270 summers ago; the dynamism, the patterns and the colors are different. In particular, before chemical advances made in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the colors of fireworks were not very bright because the gunpowder used (made from potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal), exploded at a relatively low temperature.

However, new materials made it possible for fireworks-makers to create brighter colors by, for example, adding copper sulfate and Paris green to make bright blue, and other chemicals to create vivid reds, greens and yellows.

“One of the outstanding features of modern fireworks are their colors which, by using various chemical compounds and materials, are sparkling and clear,” says Kichiji Wada, 63, the third-generation fireworks maker and the president of Fire Art Kanagawa, a fireworks-making company in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture.

At his 6.6-hectare factory site, every year Wada and his 15 staff make by hand about 35,000 fireworks shells — different-sized kraft-paper spheres — which they then cut in half. Next, craftsmen precisely position pellets of dried explosive paste containing the coloring in lines around the inside of the spheres. An explosive mixture is then packed around these “stars” before the sphere’s two halves are sealed together again.

After the firework is fired, propelled upward by the huge pressure of gunpowder exploding below it in its launch-tube, it is the positioning of those “stars,” and the size of the sphere, that determines the resulting pattern in the sky. For instance, a 23.5-cm (8-go) sphere will bloom into a fireflower about 250 meters across. The height at which it explodes — usually around 280 meters — depends on the length of fuse attached to the sphere, which is lit by the exploding launch-tube propellant.

Recently, in response to safety concerns in densely populated areas, fireworks companies have had to use smaller-sized missiles than in the past. So in addition to the traditional, big fireworks with names such as kiku (chrysanthemum) and botan (peony), their shows have also been featuring more “starmines” — smaller fireworks shot in rapid succession to present barrages of crowd-pleasing, rapid-fire multicolored bursts.

“Since the time of my grandfather, who started making fireworks as a hobby, they have developed and changed in line with the needs of the times,” says Wada. “But always we are trying to make more beautiful ones with which to entertain people.”

For the future, he adds, “I have a dream to create fireworks that can be fired from almost any site, such as the roof of a city-center building.”

Of course, as befits the risk of misfires and fireworks’ potential to kill, maim and cause damage, launching them is strictly regulated by law. For example, to fire an 8-go shell requires a safety zone of 250-meter radius which people are prohibited.

But Wada is optimistic.

“If we get new chemicals or something to create perfect fireworks that will not misfire, we will be able to shoot them from a local park — or from almost anywhere.”

Though for now that may remain a dream, Wada has already begun offering customers a service which allows them to launch the fireworks themselves for special occasions such as birthdays, while observing the current regulations. So far he’s not had many takers, he says, although the idea seems to be slowly catching on. And every bit helps, it seems.

“Compared with the bubble period of the late ’80s, business conditions have become very severe as festival organizers have slashed their budgets,” Wada says.

“However, nobody expects this business to be totally secure — and anyway, what really counts to we fireworks craftsmen is the perfection of our products.”

Like his grandfather, who enjoyed his hobby so much that he turned pro while still running a farm, Wada keeps making fireworks because he loves them — and because it makes him happy to see people enjoying his displays. “That,” he says, “is a reward no amount of money could buy.”