For much of Japan, the end of the rainy season signifies that summer has shifted into high gear. And the sweltering months are never quite complete without the bursts of color and sonic booms of fireworks festivals.

But while many people believe fireworks are a quintessential part of the nation’s culture, the fireworks industry — like so many other trades in Japan — is being taxed by socioeconomic problems such as the protracted economic downturn, the declining birthrate and the surge of cheap imports.

“Although it is generally said that the fireworks industry is unaffected by economic slowdowns, when a recession lasts this long, it does start to take its toll,” admitted Hideo Futamata, managing director of the Japan Pyrotechnics Association.

As public budgets for festivals shrink and companies grow less willing to sponsor events, the specter of fund shortages looms, he explained. But at the same time, Futamata said, event organizers cannot downsize the fireworks displays as it would anger spectators.

“The result is that the scale of the events remains the same, while there is less money to spend on them,” he said. “It’s the fireworks companies that are left holding the short straw.”

The decreasing number of children and the wider variety of diversions for kids are also hurting demand for consumer-use fireworks, Futamata pointed out.

“Children playing with fireworks on summer nights is no longer a common scene in Japan,” he sighed.

Another challenge facing Japanese fireworks companies — especially makers of consumer-oriented goods — is the increase in imported fireworks, which are less expensive and, according to industry officials, of slightly poorer quality.

Trade figures compiled by the Finance Ministry show that imports of all fireworks rose from some 3.6 billion yen in 1998 to about 4.4 billion yen in 2002. Last year, more than 98 percent of all consumer fireworks imported to Japan came from China.

Haruyuki Kono, president of Tokyo-based pyrotechnic firm Hosoya Enterprises Co., said this was hardly surprising as Japanese fireworks makers have been dispatching training staff to their Chinese counterparts for decades.

“This isn’t just about cutting (manufacturing) costs,” he explained. “It’s also a way to reduce risk, given that we handle dangerous substances. Just think about the vast expanses of land in China compared with Japan.”

Futamata said the key to survival for domestic consumer fireworks makers was to develop new products and stay a step ahead of the overseas competition.

But contrary to what the trade figures may indicate, Kono said he is optimistic that Japanese-style fireworks, especially those for shows, will never die out. He stressed that the details as color and timing are appreciated uniquely in every country.

“(Pyrotechnists) in every country work to preserve their traditional styles and techniques, and they take great pride in it,” Kono said. “The bottom line is that as long as that sort of determination is there, fireworks are not going to be supplanted so easily by imports.”

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