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Discover the Beauty of Japanese Fireworks

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Japan In-depth

Discover the Beauty of Japanese FireworksSparklers - an old tradition of “quiet fireworks"

Au Yeung Yu Leung (Hong Kong)

People all over the world love fireworks, but the Japanese fireworks culture is quite unique. In Japan, you'll not only find the standard type that makes everybody go “Oohh!" when they're launched up into the night sky. There is also another more private, quietly shimmering kind. Japanese fireworks is not only about spectacular festivals. It is an art form that can express a wide range of scenes and emotions.

Originally an ancient Chinese invention, fireworks arrived in Japan in the 16th century, where they evolved in a unique way. In the Edo period (1603-1868) the production of fireworks flourished, and the fireworks factories centered on the de facto capital of Edo (what is now Tokyo). Edo was a city where all sorts of artisans and skilled technicians gathered.

The craftsmen of old Japan were true artists. The makers of fireworks created refined designs by hand with exquisite expertise. The Japanese word for fireworks is hanabi: hana means “flower" and bi means “fire," so hanabi is a flower expressed with fire.
In order to make fireworks, the craftsmen first had to master the art of flower arrangement. Creating fireworks also meant arranging flowers. Every single piece included a flower theme. That is why Japanese fireworks are not only suitable for large festivals, but can also express the quiet and austere esthetics of the particularly Japanese world of wabi-sabi.

A representative form of wabi-sabi fireworks is a sparkler. Nothing like the spectacular stuff fired into the sky at fireworks festivals, a sparkler is a small stick with a long handle at one end and coated with black powder at the other, for use at home with your family and friends. When you hold the handle in your hand an light the other end, it begins to burn like an incense stick. Once again, the burning is nothing like the violent explosions of ordinary fireworks, but slow and gentle.
However, sparklers create a strong impression of “transience." Together with cherry blossoms and mayflies, sparklers are a traditional symbol of the ephemerality of things in Japan. Once lit, it starts shooting out sparks like pine needles, but as it moves closer to the handle, it gradually goes out. It doesn't go out with a bang like regular fireworks, but slowly fades away until the very last moment, like a dream.
While it's burning, it's just glittering quietly. Some people find sparklers cute, others see something more poetic in them. Once they have gone out, it is almost as if nothing had happened at all. They have a charm that is completely different from ordinary fireworks.

Japanese sparklers burn in different stages, corresponding to four different flowers. The first stage is the “peony." As the sparkler catches fire, a flaming ball appears at the end of the stick. Next come the “pine needles," where the ball turns into sparks. Then comes the “willow," where the sparks get weaker, and finally the “scattering chrysanthemum," the state just before the fire goes out.
In this way, the sparkler brilliantly expresses the esthetics of Japan, but the act of lighting sparklers is also an art in itself.  Sparkles are rarely lit alone. Instead, they are brought forth when all the rockets have been launched and the spinners and Roman candles have burnt out, to put a quiet ending to the whole show – a process that is brimming with the essence of the Japanese sense of beauty.

From the craftsmanship of the Edo artisans to home entertainment for the common people, the emotion-laden sparklers became a way of bringing a sense of wabi-sabi and an artistic lifestyle into ordinary households.

The Japanese are especially fond of fireworks in the summer. After the excitement of the other fireworks have died down, they gather with their families in the evening cool and light a few sparklers for a tranquil ending. Now, that's Japanese beauty.

Unlike the noise of regular fireworks, the quiet sparklers fascinate many people with their fleeting beauty. When you come to Japan, don't forget to try lighting a few sparklers for a taste of a dreamlike, very Japanese kind of elegance.

Au Yeung Yu Leung
Yu Leung holds a First-Class Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and later became a doctor at the University of Tokyo. She served as Senior Multilingual Director at "NHK WORLD," the International Broadcasting Bureau of NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation),