From China to Japan: The Story of Altair and Vega
When many Americans and other Westerners arrive in Japan, we know little of Japan and Asia. Much of what we see and experience is rooted in China and farther West to India. These roots are similar to the roots and heritage of our Western civilization, the result of a journey of thousands of years of European heritage traveling from ancient Greece and Rome across Europe to North America.
Tanabata, the Japanese Star Festival, provides an example of this Japanese borrowing from China and earlier borrowings. The Princess and the Cowherd, a Chinese folktale, was the impetus behind the Tanabata festival. The folktale is about Weaver Girl. Weaver Girl is the daughter of the Jade Emperor in heaven. Every day, Weaver Girl would descend from the heavens to earth to bathe, using her magical robe. She would leave her magical robe on the bank, next to the stream. One day, a cowherd saw Weaver Girl bathing. Falling in love with her, he stole her magic robe. Weaver Girl could not return to heaven. When Weaver Girl came out of the water, the cowherd grabbed her and carried her home.
When Jade Emperor learned about Weaver Girl, he was angry, but could not act. His daughter had fallen in love; Weaver Girl married the lowly cowherd. Weaver Girl grew homesick; she started to miss her father. She found her magic robe and decided to visit her father. After she arrived home, the Jade Emperor called a river to help him keep her home. The river, the Milky Way, flowed across the sky. Weaver Girl could not cross the river, so she could not return to her husband. The Emperor relented, slightly. Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, he allows Weaver Girl and her husband, the cowherd, to meet, creating a bridge over the river for them.
If you know your astronomy, you can pick out Weaver Girl (Vega) and the lowly cowherd (Altair). On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, the Milky Way appears be dimmer, enabling them to reach each other.
This Chinese folktale inspired a Japanese version: Orihime was the daughter of the Sky King. She wove beautiful clothes on the bank of the Milky Way. Her father loved Orihime’s cloth. She worked hard every day to weave cloth for the Sky King. Orihime was sad; she worked all the time. She would never meet anyone; Orihime feared she would never fall in love. The Sky King grew worried; he introduced Orihime to Hikoboshi. He was a cowherder, living and working far away on the other side of the Milky Way, the river. Orihime and Hikoboshi met; they fell in love; they were married.
Orihime stopped weaving cloth for the Sky King; Hikoboshi’s cows strayed all over heaven. The Sky King grew angry, putting the Milky Way between Orihime and Hikoboshi. He forbade them to meet. Orihime cried and begged her father to let them meet again. The Sky King said the two could meet on the seventh day of the seventh month as long as Orihime worked hard, finishing her weaving.
Their first meeting was a failure; they could not cross the river; there was no bridge. Orihime cried and cried. A flock of magpies flew in, promising her that they would make a bridge of their wings, helping her to cross the river. When the rains come, however, the magpies cannot come. Orihime and Hikoboshi hope for good weather the next year. If the sky is clear and there is no rain, the magpies help Orihime and Hikoboshi meet.
Just as the Japanese story looks back to the Chinese story, the Japanese festival of Tanabata looks back to Chinese festival: The Festival to Plead for Skills. Both festivals celebrate the meeting of Altair and Vega. The Chinese festival spread to Japan during and after the Heian period. As in China, the Japanese ask for skills. During the Edo period in Japan, boys and girls wrote their wishes on strips of paper. Girls wished to improve their sewing and craftsmanship; boys wished to improve their handwriting. Modern day Tanabata remains a festival of wishes, be they ceremonial or actual wishes.
Japan has Tanabata festivals across the country on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month, but the most famous is in Sendai, where people traditionally use seven different kinds of decorations. Six of the seven decorations represent different wishes. Paper strips represent wishes for good handwriting and studies. Paper kimonos represent wishes for good sewing; the kimonos also ward off accidents and bad health. Paper cranes represent wishes for family safety, health, and long life. Purses represent wishes for good business. Nets represent wishes for good fishing and harvests. Garbage bags represent wishing for cleanliness and avoiding wasting resources. The final decorations are streamers; these are the strings that Orihime used to weave for her father.
When we watch a Tanabata festival today, we are viewing a celebration that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, across the sea to China, and perhaps even farther. What happened before China has been obscured by the passage of time. Regardless of when and where Tanabata originated, the story is a lovely, fanciful tale. The Tanabata festival in Sendai is a lovely, fanciful experience.
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