Developed in China, fireworks first came to Japan in the 16th century, where the making of them was taken up by skilled craftsmen. The Japanese word for fireworks is hanabi meaning “flower” (hana) of “fire” (bi) and these craftsmen were expected to study the art of flower arranging as well as constructing the fireworks themselves. In Japan, where large displays of fireworks are often held in the summer, the art of the firework is closely connected not just to natural beauty but also the ephemeral nature of time – just as the blossom season that bathes the country in pink petals for an oh-so brief spell in part is celebrated as a festival of beauty but also transience, so fireworks are used to express both fleeting beauty and a range of emotions.
As often used historically to commemorate tragic events as for celebrations, fireworks also took on a symbolic importance connected to peace during the 250 years of peace enjoyed during the Tokugawa shogunate, when gunpowder previously used for weapons was instead put to use in displays that stood for the redirection of aggression into something beautiful. It’s a far cry from the big booms set to pumping music that has become the popular face of firework displays in the UK.
So important and revered were the artistic creations of the firework masters of Japan that through the centuries Japanese artists have sought to capture the displays. From wood-block prints in the 19th century to the bright and bold shapes and colours of firework packaging, artists have aimed to recreate both the lights and forms of fireworks in the night sky, but also the experience of watching them in a crowd. Images often have crowds of people in the foreground memorialising the celebratory festivals as much as the fireworks themselves and images very often place great importance on the reflections of the fireworks on water too.
Today Japan still hosts hundreds of fireworks festivals and even competitions, but unlike in Europe, the season for them is in July and August. If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan at this time, you can find a list of some of the most popular events, as well as information on the surrounding attractions and customs, here.