(98) Fireworks from The 100 Famous Views of Edo (Tokyo) by Hiroshige
The first fireworks in Japan had been made in the 16th century, soon after guns were brought into the country. The oldest record of fireworks as a source of entertainment is said to be 1613, when Japan’s first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu viewed fireworks in the Edo Castle. However, there are resources that also tell us that Date Masamune enjoyed viewing them back in 1589, or on April 14th of 1582 the Portuguese Jesuit Missionaries used fireworks at the church in Oita Prefecture. Furthermore, there is even a record that says fireworks were already used at a seasonal festival in either 1558 or 1560 at Yoshida Shrine in Toyohashi City, Aichi Prefecture. Hence, the history of fireworks display has not been made clear in its origin.
As Japan entered the Edo-era – a closed and fairly peaceful era that lasted for 260 years – and the need of guns and gunpowder decreased dramatically, the unemployed people in the gunpowder industry made re-starts as fireworks factories. Fireworks back then were so popular among people from lay people to warriors, bureaucrats and shogun, that the government even issued a law that bans fireworks other than at Sumida River.
The most popular fireworks craftsman in those days was the Sr. Yahei (n.b. the name and thus master title “Yahei” has been succeeded in the following generations) of Kagiya. It is told that Sr.Yahei was not from Edo (present day Tokyo) but from Nara Prefecture and was known for having excellent fireworks creating skills from when he was small.
In 1659, Yahei became successful in Edo with toy fireworks in which he filled a reed-made cylinder with hoshi (gunpowder). Yahei continued to study and improve his skills, and opened a store called Kagiya in Ryogoku.
In the following years, Yahei studied large-scale fireworks and showed his marvelous works at the Water God Festival in 1717. When the country suffered many deaths due to famine in Kansai (west) and cholera in Edo, the 8th shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune held a Water God Festival at Sumida River to console the souls of the dead, with Yahei’s fireworks. This is said to be the beginning of Sumidagawa Fireworks that continues to attract millions of people in Tokyo today.
Another fireworks company that became famous and popular in Edo alongside of Kagiya was Tamaya. Tamaya was opened in 1810 by Seikichi, one of Kagiya’s assistant manager, as an independent branch of Kagiya.
By latter Edo-era both Kagiya and Tamaya had made impeccable success in the fireworks industry in Edo. The Sumidagawa Fireworks was left to these two companies, the upper stream to Tamaya and the lower to Kagiya. When the fireworks spread in the night sky, the audience started to call out “Tah-ma-yaah” and “Kah-gi-yaah” on top of their cheers accordingly to which side of the river the fireworks were shot from, saying “this is Kagiya’s hanabi,” or “this is Tamaya’s.” This is the very origin of the famous phrase “Tamaya, Kagiya” that the Japanese shout out when viewing fireworks.
However in 1843, an accidental fire spread out from Tamaya and burnt not only the store but also half the town. Back then accidental fire was considered a very serious crime, and because it was the night before the shogun left for a visit to a family shrine, Tamaya was given heavy punishment with all of its property taken and the master expelled from Edo.
In those days, fireworks companies like Kagiya were called chonin-hanabi (townsmen fireworks). Besides those townsmen fireworks, there were private fireworks displays competed among feudal lords who had their servant craftsmen make hanabi for them. These are called buke-hanabi (warrior’s fireworks). Warrior’s fireworks were especially popular and gorgeously held in the three domains Kii, Owari and Mito where there were no restrictions in fireworks productions for the domains were ruled by the Tokugawa (shogun) family. The warrior’s fireworks of the Date clan was also known to be great, reflecting how the clan prospered the most for the first time after the historical figure Date Masamune. It was so popular that in fact, the reputation spread to Edo and people flooded over destroying a bridge nearby the site.
Warrior’s fireworks originated in war signals, therefore developed as fireworks that shoot up high in the sky. As compared to the rather flat fireworks of Edo which were more art-oriented (colors, shape, tricks) the warrior’s fireworks were more plain but grander in scale. Fireworks that Japan enjoys today have taken in both these elements, and developed into a unique high-skilled art.
According to Muto Teruhiko (1921 – 2002), the founder of Japan Fireworks Artists Association (JFAA) and a writer of innumerous documents related to fireworks, uchiage-hanabi (the kind that goes high in the sky and is meant to be displayed in the air) was developed in 1751. What people may have believed to be uchiage-hanabi before then were smaller fireworks that shot out sparks and smoke. On a side note, Kagiya’s 13th generation owner and master Amano stopped producing hanabi (handheld fireworks) during WWII, and has become a uchiage-hanabi-only company since then.
Fireworks were of course popular outside of Edo and the prospered domains during Edo, but as Japan entered Meiji (where she went through a major restoration coming in contact with the West) chemicals including potassium chlorate, aluminum, magnesium, strontium carbonate and barium nitrate were imported, which not only allowed increasing colors but also made a remarkable change in the brightness. These chemicals were imported gradually during 1879 through 1887, and the fireworks in Japan changed dramatically due to the encounter of new ingredients.
The introduction of new chemicals brought forth new fireworks, but it also brought more accidents mostly due to the lack of knowledge in how to handle them. Until then, fireworks did not require licenses but license permission system soon started in 1910. Before, production of fireworks were mainly done by farmers more as part of their past-time hobbies, but from this point the fireworks production became an independent profession of those who have sufficient knowledge on chemicals and chemistry.
By the Taisho-era metal powders such as magnesium and aluminum were used as emission ingredients, creating bright and vivid fire flowers. Soon after fireworks that make loud explosion sounds were developed with the invention of gunpowder mixed of potassium chlorate and realgar.
Fireworks continued to enjoy rapid development until the beginning of Showa-era when wars spread around the world, not to mention the huge involvement of Japan in it. September 1945, the first postwar fireworks were held at Suwa Shrine in Nagano City, but the production of gunpowder was soon banned by the Allied Powers in the following October.
Nevertheless, a Japanese fireworks company was in charge of the Fourth of July Ceremonies at the American Camps across the country on 1946, and the tradition of fireworks displays gradually started to come back to Japanese people as seen in the 14th National Fireworks Competition (September 29 /30, 1946) and the Commemoration Ceremony of the new constitution in front of the Imperial Palace in 1947 (this ended up being the last fireworks being held there).
With the strong persuasion of the Japanese fireworks companies, the GHQ permitted to use up all the fireworks in stock in 1948. August 1st 1948, the Sumidagawa Fireworks was back. At this time, only 600 shots were permitted but 700,000 people came to appreciate the fireworks in the beginning of the new peaceful age.
After WWII, Japanese fireworks with high reputation spread out overseas including toy fireworks, but today the import from China is larger than the export all together. Most of the companies are small to middle in size, taking a hereditary system.
The production takes more than half a year, and is impossible to have mass production for it can only be done with human hands in most of the process. Being a dangerous profession, despite its popularity for centuries there had not been many displays and competitions for a long time during mid 20th century. It is said that there were only about 10-20 shows even in the early 1980s.
Yet, inexpensive fireworks from China started to flow in and due to the invention of electric firing system by Amano Osamu the 14th master of Kagiya, firing became relatively safe. With these two reasons, shows increased at once counting up to more than two hundred in one summer.
Hence, fireworks grasped the hearts of common people and are constantly developing. For the past few years, a new genre of fireworks with popular characters from shows is appearing to be popular. Being both old and new, fireworks are undoubtedly loved by Japanese people and are a
great part of daily life and entertainment. Knowing the historical and cultural is sure to show you more beauty and give more sentiments.