Another Explosive Summer of Japanese Hanabi

Japanese FireworksFireworks have always been a source of mystery and nostalgia for many people. Perhaps its because we are generally introduced to these noisy and colourful displays when we are young and at a most impressionable age, after all being allowed to stay up late and go outside in the dark with the adults is pretty exciting stuff for a 4 year old. For me fireworks started with a few sparklers and the dads lofting up some bottle rockets. I then progressed to the larger, but still modest, shows held by the PTA at my local primary school.

In Japan fireworks, or “Hanabi”, are in a different league and are taken very seriously. Every summer usually around late July hundreds of major displays each with tens of thousands of explosions draw huge crowds. Fireworks in Japan have evolved technically over the generations into far more complex aesthetic endeavours than what I ever saw when I was child.Part of the reason that fireworks in Japan are so advanced maybe because they are seen as much a form of entertainment for adults as for children. In the past they were the exclusive domain of the upper class, rich daimyo’s would gaze at them as they floated on river boats, eating and drinking delicacies and being entertained by geishya. These days some of the most spectacular shows are the Hanabi Taikai, or competitive events where teams of pyrotechnics from around the country come together at live televised events to be judged on their technical and artistic merits.

Huge Japanese Fireworks
One of bigger “crackers” (bombs?) the Japanese make

At this level, fireworks no longer resemble the cylindrical rocket shaped crackers with a stick poking out the bottom, they are spheres made of papier-mâché and string pasted together. Inside the shell ‘stars’ are packed in with black powder to help ignite them. A firecracker-like bursting charge is inserted in the middle of the shell, and a fuse attached to it from outside the shell. If you’ve ever seen one of these shells up close or handled one the first thing that will impress you is the weight, they are almost completely filled solidly with powder and with diameters ranging from about 7 cm to well over a meter they can weigh up to and beyond 400Kg a piece!

The shells are launched through huge mortar-like tubes , up to 30Kg of black powder is needed to shoot the larger shells up to their explosion elevation of about 600m. To make the display last as long as possible, firework-makers have learned to use the largest grains of black powder in their stars as possible, and not to mix the powder’s ingredients too thoroughly. That way, the fuel inside the stars gets starved of oxygen slightly, making the combustion leaner, brighter and last longer.The Making of Japanese Hanabi

While the Chinese remain the world’s largest producers of commercial fireworks, the Japanese have some of the most sought-after designs. Manufactures have an arsenal of various techniques they draw on to wow the crowds, such as pressing their stars, onion-like, with separate layers containing different colouring agents—so the display can change colour as the stars burn. And while the spherical design is also used elsewhere, the Japanese trick that foreign firework-makers have yet to master has more to do with the manufacture of the shell itself rather than the ingredients that go into it.Thanks to their paper making traditions, the Japanese know better than most how to paste layers of paper on the shell’s surface and how to dry the shell so its strength balances the explosive power of the firework’s bursting charge precisely.

I’ve come a long way since my sparkler days, but thanks to the amazing skill of the Japanese at this art form fireworks still have that magical quality they always had. What’s your favourite Hanabi Taikai? Tell us in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Another Explosive Summer of Japanese Hanabi”

  1. “the fuel inside the stars gets starved of oxygen slightly, making the combustion leaner, brighter and last longer.”

    This reminds me of a hanabi taikai I went to once. It was windy as hell, but it wasn’t raining so they didn’t have to cancel it. The fireworks were shot up over the lake, and they were blown overhead by the wind, which made them look quite beautiful actually. Then they started using the long streaming variety described in the article. Now, these are very nice and pretty if they fall into a lake, but it’s much more interesting if they fall on spectators’ heads! It was like a dozen fireballs slowly streaming down onto the screaming crowd. Several people were injured, some with 2nd and 3rd degree burns (a lady from my office lost half of her hair).

    The logical thing to do would have been to cancel the rest of the show, or at least that type of fireworks. However, sponsors pour millions of yen into the shows and they would not have been happy. After a 15-minute pause, the show went on, and sure enough another stream of fireballs fell down upon the screaming crowd. By this point they decided it was time to pack up and call it a night.

    The general conclusion I heard the next day is that it must have been because they were Chinese fireworks.

  2. Just went to the Yokohama one. Coming back year after year – each time they seem to get better. Three things seem to always bring out the most “ooohs” and “waaahs”. The really beautiful ones – multi-staged, multi-colored. The really big ones – like the huge bronze ones that seem to shower down forever. And the recognizable shapes.

    Past year’s tricks were circles, squares and faces – amazing in itself. This year they went 3D. Before, the circles and squares were 3D, really cool. But the Mickeys and Poohs were 2D. This year, I swear I saw Pooh’s face in 3D – nose and cheeks sticking out and everything. I was awed.

    Oh! and one of the finale bursts. We knew it was going to be a big one, but as it streamed up, it took a sharp crook down at an angle. Everyone thought that something went wrong. Then as our eyes traced the rogue dud, up above it, hundreds of multiple flowered bursts filled the sky in the place where it would have been had it continued on it’s normal course…they tricked us! Everyone was cheering and laughing at themselves.

    Gotta love Japan.

  3. I just got back from the Edogawa hanabi taikai. Great night with lots of wind from the approaching typhoon, which was good as it blew all the smoke away. Japanese fireworks are great.

  4. Thanks for all the technical info on fireworks, it made it much more interesting when I saw the Ota-ku ones on the Tama river last night. Does that make me an Ota-ku fireworks otaku? Didn’t see a Winnie the Pooh one (though have seen a Pooh-san tattoo, ha!).

    Something wrong with the fireworks- must be Chinese! Sigh…

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