Is Japan “the best” at fireworks?
George Plimpton thinks so. In 1984, this unofficial fireworks commissioner of New York declared that “Japan is by far the most enlightened and enterprising nation when it comes to fireworks” in a book titled “Fireworks: A History and Celebration.”
More than three decades later, Japan may still hold the crown. From small family gatherings to gargantuan waterside festivals that draw millions, hanabi (fireworks) are as much a part of summer as humidity and watermelon.
From June to September, several times each week, people across Japan put on yukata (summer kimono) and jinbei (light summer wear), board packed trains and travel to their closest fireworks taikai (literally, tournament). The displays are so popular that they’ve reached a level of cultural significance akin to the much-revered hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season that takes place in spring.
Large displays can feature as many as 40,000 shells over the course of an hour, the largest of which could boast a blast radius of some 375 meters.
But who are the people behind the blasts? From design and construction to staging and safety, thousands are employed in fireworks-linked jobs.
You know that feeling you get when you’re excited about summer’s arrival? Well, it’s these people that are partly to thank for that.
Historical documents show that the first fireworks display in Japan took place when a British envoy to King James I met Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1613.
Guns and gunpowder had already been introduced to Japan by that stage, and had played a significant role in Sengoku era warfare.
According to the Ryogoku Fireworks Museum, a Portuguese ship carrying gunpowder washed up on Japanese shores as early as 1543.
A fireworks display held along the banks of the Sumida River in 1733 is generally recognized as being the first fireworks show in the country. It was held as a memorial for lives that had been lost to cholera and crop failures.
At the time, locals also believed that fireworks could be used to ward off evil spirits.
However, fireworks soon became a regular part of life in the Edo Period (1603-1867), a time when entertainment and cultural endeavors flourished. The indulgent nature of fireworks — essentially, blowing things up for fun — seemed to reflect the commoner’s ethos of decadence and their live-for-the-moment spirit.
Kagiya was the first officially recognized fireworks producer in Japan, commencing operations in 1659. Kagiya operated without competition for nearly 150 years until Tamaya, a guild started by a former Kagiya artisan, was established in 1808.
Fireworks festivals were historically competitions between these two literal powerhouses, with audience members calling out the name of their favorite producer during the displays. The tradition of shouting out either “Tamaya” or “Kagiya” during the show continues at the Sumida River fireworks displays today.
Famous ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the era occasionally featured fireworks competitions.
In artist Utagawa Hiroshige’s “Fireworks over Ryogoku Bridge” (1858) from the “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” series, spectators are depicted on a bridge and in pleasure boats with fireworks exploding in the sky overhead.
In such portrayals, the fireworks are shown as rudimentary orange comets, not the explosive blooms we now know.
Around 140 fireworks companies operate in Japan, with many located in prefectures such as Niigata, Nagano and Shizuoka.
Aichi Prefecture is historically also home to a high concentration of fireworks-related companies.
Ieyasu only trusted retainers in his homeland of Mikawa Province (in present-day eastern Aichi Prefecture) to produce gunpowder and so the region got something of a head-start in the manufacturing process.
Gunpowder was initially used for weaponry. However, as Japan entered a period of peace during the Edo Period, the production of gunpowder took on a more festive role.
Located in Aichi Prefecture, Kato Fireworks is involved in every step of the production process, from the manufacturing of the shells to the curation of displays.
The company is well-known for producing vibrantly colored, flickering fireworks, and spends the entire year preparing shells for the busy summer season.
Pyrotechnician Katsunori Kato says fireworks are deeply ingrained in the regional culture due to a long legacy of gunpowder production. Not only are many large-scale displays held, locals also participate in festivals and help to project them into the sky.
Traditional tezutsu fireworks that can be fired from handheld projectiles are still used by locals in the region as well.
“The technical skills to make tezutsu isn’t ours, it’s the locals,” Kato says. “By law, locals can’t make gunpowder, so we produce it and pass it on to them, and they pack it in themselves. There is a preservation society for this culture, with a dedicated community of enthusiasts. The act of letting off tezutsu fireworks is a devotion to the gods, and there are festivals associated with local shrines.”
Manufacturers such as Kato Fireworks produce the large uchiage (projectiles that are shot into the sky) fireworks over four basic steps
First, the powder is prepared and granulated into pellets, or “stars.”
These pellets are then dried and, according to the required size, the steps are repeated.
Artisans then place the pellets inside a shell casing in meticulous layers, much like someone making a cake.
Finally, the shell casings are wrapped with layers of craft tape to bind the package together.
Each process is typically carried out in small ateliers that are spread across a wide area, in accordance with strict architectural regulations. Each cottage is constructed to ensure that an explosion will detonate upward, not sideways. Unsurprisingly, smoking is not permitted on the premises.
“We use gunpowder, so we don’t use one large factory. We divide the factory into lots of little rooms so if one section explodes, it won’t blow up the entire place,” Kato says.
The need for a large expanse of land means that fireworks factories are typically located in rural areas.
Kato says the blast diameter of a shell is around 1,000 times the size of the original casing.
As a result, a casing that is 6 centimeters wide will have a blast diameter of around 60 meters, while a shell that is 15 centimeters wide has a blast diameter of approximately 150 meters.
As such, a 1-millimeter error in terms of composition in the casing could equate to 1-meter or so difference in the sky.
It almost goes without saying that artisans need to be extra careful when putting the fireworks together in the first place.
“If several fireworks are let off at the same time, high-quality fireworks detonate at the same time and disappear simultaneously,” Kato says. “The inferior ones are not spherical in shape. They look like a rugby ball. You can make any shape, including a heart, if you have the skill to make a well-composed globe.”
“If there are too many sloppy products, the fireworks display won’t be interesting,” Kato says. “Even if you have fewer fireworks, it is better to have beautiful specimens — this translates into an audience’s appreciation.”
Kato says the biggest change in the industry is that once tightly guarded company techniques are now made public via fireworks organizations. The primary reason for this was to find industry-wide solutions to ensure the safety of workers.
“As a result, there are few accidents,” Kato says.
That said, Kato is proud of the safety protocols that exist in Japan.
“Conversely, however, all the fireworks companies have begun to look the same,” he says. “There are differences, of course, but it’s not like before. Prior to this, everyone’s fireworks were completely unique.”
Nowadays, demand supersedes output and fireworks are imported from various countries, including China and Thailand.
Kato says the quality of fireworks manufactured by domestic producers is higher, adding that producers nationwide are scrupulous when selecting materials and don’t cut corners.
“However,” he says, “there are two types of spectators: people who like the quality of fireworks and those that are impressed by the sheer number.”
Traditional New Year’s festivities in China consist of rapid-fire, ear-blasting cracker detonations, as the sound is traditionally thought to dispel evil.
“Chinese fireworks culture focuses on quantity instead of quality, especially over the lunar new year. Therefore they love crackers,” Kato says. “They are allowed to sell things that are prohibited in Japan (due to the amount of gunpowder) and they make a very loud noise. Rather than commiserating on each firework, it is more about igniting numbers. But that is another valid way to enjoy fireworks as well.”
The fireworks never end
For most of Japan, fireworks are a quintessential part of summer.
In the city of Daisen, however, fireworks displays are held every month, regardless of the season. They are part of the regional identity: Many souvenirs are fireworks-themed and a huge statue of a fireworks shell sits outside Omagari Station.
Factory Manager Sho Konno of Hibikiya Omagari Fireworks, a manufacturer in Daisen that was first established in 1894, says there’s never a bad time to enjoy the show.
“Daisen is a fireworks town and so when there’s an event, we’ll always set them off,” Konno says. “People in Daisen don’t associate fireworks only with summer. It has been like this for a long time.
“We let off fireworks on ceremonial occasions, as well as school entrance, graduation and occasionally at wedding parties. We even let them off for birthday celebrations. It may not be a daily occurrence, but fireworks pretty much go off every week.”
The region also hosts the Omagari National Fireworks Competition, which sees more than 700,000 spectators flock to Akita — a formidable amount considering the population of the prefecture is only around 984,000 people.
The festival started in 1910, and the top fireworks manufacturers from across Japan compete in various contests, including a daytime display (featuring fireworks that utilize colored smoke), a creative show, and displays where makers can only shoot shells that have an outer diameter of 30 centimeters.
Hibikiya Omagari Fireworks has 25 artisans on its books, including part-time workers from as far away as Miyazaki Prefecture and Amami Oshima, an island in Kagoshima Prefecture.
“There are a lot of young people working here. The youngest is 20 years old,” Konno says.
“They leave high school and start here immediately because they love fireworks,” Konno says. “On average, they’re in their mid-30s. I think we have the youngest workers of all manufacturers in the industry here.”
Konno thinks the youth of his artisans is reflected in his company’s output.
“Our displays channel the power of youth,” Konno says. “They deliver a kind of gusto. We have fireworks with moving colors, color gradations and we are adding strength to contemporary and dynamic creations.”
In addition to producing warimono shells that produce spheres, pokamono shells that break apart in the air and scatter their enclosed parts and hanawarimono shells that detonate as a sphere with smaller exploding parts, Hibikiya Omagari Fireworks also manufactures new katamono shells. Katamono is a creative type of fireworks where two-dimensional illustrations can be made in the sky, as opposed to the standard three-dimensional forms.
One of the company’s designs references the Disney character Olaf from the film “Frozen.”
Visiting the atelier, it’s refreshing to see a large number of women present. Around half the artisans at Hibikiya are female, with some of the women in their 60s.
“Women are meticulous in their work,” Konno says. “They make things beautifully. In terms of conception, they suggest things that us guys wouldn’t think about, like the combination of colors. Female workers have a superior eye for color.”
Konno reportedly draws immense satisfaction from his job, happy in the knowledge that his work is something that thousands can enjoy.
“If a firework goes up, everyone will lift their heads,” he says. “Even if you are sad or feeling blue, fireworks can lift your spirits and brighten your soul.”
When sparks fly
Commercial producers in Japan also manufacture a smaller array of gangu (toy) fireworks aimed at the general public, specifically children. These can range from simple sparklers to standing fireworks similar to Roman candles.
Sano Fireworks in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, is one of six shops in the region that specializes in selling such items.
The displays in the shop resemble a candy store, with row upon row of fireworks packaged in colorful, kitschy designs. Sano Fireworks sells single fireworks, the most popular being the MG44s (a pistol that spurts sparks out the nozzle), as well as variety bags.
“They start at ¥10, and go up to ¥300 for a handheld firework,” owner Masato Sano says. “For ones that spout, there are ¥1,000 to ¥2,000 varieties.” Sano Fireworks also sells box sets of high-quality sparklers.
While some of its toys are imported, Sano Fireworks also sells products from makers in the region, such as the “Dragon,” which is made by Ota, a company with nearly 100 years of history. Another locally produced toy is the Tako Odori (dancing octopus), which Sano recommends for its “bright and sparkly” hues.
“I am a fireworks geek,” he says. “I think they are very well-made.”
“Locally made fireworks are very different in terms of the beauty and variety of the colors, and the amount of time they go off for” Sano says. “If there is more gunpowder, it sparks for longer. It’s common sense, but that amount is limited insofar as toy fireworks are concerned. Still, they are produced to have longevity.”
The uchiage fireworks industry is generally economically steady, with ateliers across Japan manufacturing fireworks averaging an output worth between ¥4 billion and ¥5 billion a year. Toy fireworks manufacturers, on the other hand, have been on the decline since the mid-1970s, a situation that hasn’t been helped by Japan’s aging population.
Established in 1929, Tsutsui Tokimasa Toy Fireworks Factory in Fukuoka Prefecture is one of the few remaining Japanese companies that produces toy fireworks. Its beautiful designs include a Mount Fuji that erupts in sparks and a whale that ejects a brilliant stream of fire from its blowhole.
When the sole factory manufacturing sparklers in Japan closed in 1999, Ryota Tsutsui, the third-generation proprietor of Tsutsui, entered an apprenticeship to acquire the skills to make them.
Tsutsui’s sparklers use gunpowder made of pine soot from Miyazaki that is wrapped in plant-dyed paper from the city of Yame. Much like wine, the sparklers are “aged” to produce softer colors.
Sparklers typically go through several stages when they are burned. There are names assigned to these stages: They typically start with a peony before transitioning into pine needle sparks, willow and, finally, scattered chrysanthemum.
“There is a chic way for adults to play with sparklers as well, wearing a yukata, with Japanese sake in one hand,” Kyoko Tsutsui says.
Tsutsui believes the dancing sparks can also be used as a form of therapeutic relaxation.
In this modern age, it’s easy to forget the simple entertainment that a sparkler can bring.
However, Tsutsui believes that it’s a delight that is hard to forget.
“Attached to sparklers are memories of o-Bon, when relatives gather and light sparklers while huddled together, shoulder-to-shoulder, to shield themselves from the wind. Sparklers bring people together.”