Summer is fireworks season. For centuries, Japanese have been fascinated by this spectacle of lights called “hanabi,” which literally means “fire flowers.”

These days, hundreds of fireworks festivals, both large and small, take place across the country every summer and thousands of spectators come to observe the magical art of lights that brighten the evening skies.

Meanwhile, there are the consumer fireworks — categorized as “toy fireworks” — sold in supermarkets, convenience stores and toy shops that often become part of the summer activities among families and friends.

When did fireworks displays start?

There are several theories, but most experts agree fireworks took hold after Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the shogunate that ruled the country between 1603 and 1867, first observed them in August 1613. They were presented to him by a British envoy of King James I and a Chinese merchant when they visited the shogun at Sunpu Castle in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture.

Fireworks soon became popular with other lords who resided in Edo, today’s Tokyo. According to Teruhiko Muto’s “Nihon no Hanabi no Ayumi” (“History of Fireworks in Japan”), most opted for fireworks displays along the Sumida River as a way to seek relief from the summer heat. Gradually, fireworks gained popularity with the general public.

In 1733, the eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, held the Water God Festival on the Sumida River and launched fireworks to honor the souls of the dead from the previous year, when some 1 million people had died of famine. This became an annual summer event, now known as Sumida River Fireworks Festival. It takes place in Sumida and Taito wards.

Fireworks continued to evolve as pyrotechnics progressed over time. Their manufacture was suspended during the war but started up again in 1946 when the Allied Occupation forces wanted to launch fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July.

What are the characteristics of fireworks made in Japan?

According to the booklet “Hanabi Nyumon” (“Introduction to Fireworks”) published by the Japan Pyrotechnics Association, a key characteristic of many Japanese fireworks is that they are spherical.

Some may appear as concentric circles that change colors as they expand.

It all depends on how they are manufactured. General fireworks are packed in round shells, which are lined on the inside with “stars” — pellets made of dried explosive paste.

Western-made fireworks are often packed in cylindrical shells, creating different effects. The difference between the two becomes more evident the larger the fireworks, the booklet said.

Japanese fireworks are also named according to their effects, the association says. Some of the names are flowers, including “kiku” (chrysanthemum), “botan” (tree peony) and “yanagi” (willow).

Is there anything unique to how fireworks are appreciated here?

Unlike other countries where fireworks are launched on special occasions such as New Year’s, national holidays, concerts or entertainment events, Japanese fireworks are generally associated with summer nights, according to Haruyuki Kono, an executive board member of the association.

Kono also said fireworks have the same appeal here as “sakura” cherry blossoms in the spring. “There is the sense of beauty that Japanese see in things that bloom and fade away in a flash,” Kono said, adding fireworks manufacturers try their best to make the final effect of each burst very exquisite.

What are the current trends in the design and color of display fireworks?

According to Katsuyuki Suzuki of the Ryogoku Fireworks Museum, more colors, especially brighter ones, are being used thanks to advances in gunpowder technology.

While there are basic patterns, manufacturers are constantly trying to add unique variations, he said. These not only involve light but also the sound skyrockets make when they are launched and explode.

Although computers may be used to design fireworks, the casings and stars are manufactured completely by hand.

What are “toy fireworks”?

The distinction between display fireworks and toy fireworks comes down to the amount of gunpowder used. Toy fireworks contain between 0.004 gram and 15 grams of gunpowder.

The law also dictates how much gunpowder can be used in each type. Additionally, the association has its own regulations and checks whether all toy fireworks meet its safety criteria.

Some local governments regulate how toy fireworks can be used.

For example, Kanagawa Prefecture prohibits the use of fireworks between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Some types of toy fireworks, especially those that are loud, were banned along the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto Prefecture after locals complained about the noise.

Mailing or carrying fireworks onto airplanes are also prohibited.

How big is the domestic fireworks market?

According to the association, domestic production in fiscal 2007 amounted to ¥7.07 billion, down from ¥8.05 billion in 2006 and ¥7.46 billion in 2005. Most fireworks produced domestically are of the display type.

In 2007, ¥70 million worth of domestically produced fireworks were shipped overseas, down from ¥80 million in 2006. Thus, most domestically produced fireworks are fired off in Japan.

Meanwhile, ¥2.03 billion worth of fireworks were imported in 2007, up from ¥1.81 billion in 2006 and ¥1.98 billion in 2005.

A large majority of them are toy fireworks, mostly from mainland China.

The market for fireworks is shrinking, especially in the toy fireworks category. According to Kono, this is because there are fewer places for people to set off fireworks, in addition to the decline in the number of children, and a greater variety of other entertainment options.

The market for display fireworks remains fairly stable, but it could be influenced by the recession, Kono said, if sponsors withdraw from festivals.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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