The Origin of Japanese Fireworks

Black powder – the main component of fireworks – was imported to Japan in the 16th century during the Sengoku period. At that time, black powder was primarily used for matchlock guns or signal fires. Ornamental fireworks first appeared during the Edo period, when they became extremely popular. Moreover, in the Meiji period, fireworks became more colorful than ever before, after a variety of chemicals started to be imported to Japan.
1) The First Encounter with Black Powder
The Japanese first experienced the power of gunpowder during the battles of the Mongol invasions of Japan, in the Kamakura period. The explosive weapon that Mongolians used was called Tetsuhau, and its structure was very similar to that of modern fireworks. Centuries later, in 1543, matchlock guns were imported to Japan by the Portuguese, and a new occupation – gunsmith – originated due to demand from the warlords. Since then, the production of gunpowder expanded across Japan, and the country became one of the leading gun-holding countries in the world.
2) Peaceful (Non-military) Use of Gunpowder – The Origin of Fireworks as a Mass Culture
There are various theories regarding the origin of fireworks in Japan, including written documents about the prevalence of fireworks. Masamune Date – a well-known warlord of the Sendai domain – enjoyed watching fireworks in 1598, and the Chinese people who came along with the delegates of the king of Great Britain performed fireworks in the Sunpu castle when they visited Ieyasu Tokugawa – the founder of the Edo shogunate government and its first shogun – in 1613. After the shogun enjoyed the show, fireworks became popular among feudal lords as well as ordinary Edo citizens. Subsequently, fireworks stores and manufacturers started to appear in town. Fireworks became so popular that the Edo government invoked a fireworks prohibition order repeatedly in order to prevent fires.
3) The Origin of Fireworks Festival – The Ryogoku Kawabiraki Fireworks
The Ryogoku *Kawabiraki commenced in 1733. The previous year, Japan experienced a devastating nationwide famine and pandemic, which resulted in extensive loss of lives. Shogun Yoshimune Tokugawa decided to conduct a festival for the Water god for appeasing the spirits of the dead and exorcising evil spirits on the day of Kawabiraki. In conjunction with the festival, teahouses around the Ryogoku bridge also held *Kawasegaki. From the following year, in association with the memorial events, a huge fireworks festival sponsored by teahouses and other businesses was held during Kawabiraki. Thereafter, the fireworks festival became an annual event. [*Kawabiraki (the festival marking the start of the boating season); *Kawasegaki (a ritual of Japanese Buddhism which is conducted to appease the spirits of people who drowned)].
4) From “Wabi” to “Yobi”
In the Meiji era, Japan began importing potassium chlorate – a component of matches – strontium, aluminum, and other chemicals, and Japan’s fireworks culture also took a new shape. The traditional “Japanese-style fireworks (wabi)” had only one color – orange – which was called “charcoal fire color (sumibiiro).” Meanwhile, the new type of fireworks –“western-style fireworks (yobi)”– could clearly illuminate the sky with more colorful sparks. On November 3, 1877, Hirayama Jinta from Mikawa Province (a province in Aichi prefecture) launched 300 beautiful western-style fireworks to celebrate the Meiji emperor’s birthday. The performance was lauded by many country’s consuls, and this event also highlighted the rapid development of fireworks technology in Japan. Thereafter, constant miscellaneous efforts made by craftsmen led them to create what is today’s exquisite and elegant Japanese fireworks.
[About the Pictures and Photos]
– The first rifle imported to Japan [the photo on the top of the very left column]: Hinawaju (matchlock) is said to be the very first kind of matchlocks or guns that was imported to Japan. The gun is owned by Mr. Tokikuni Tanegashima.
– Figure of Tetsuhau [the picture in the middle of the very left column]: Tetsuhau (also known as Pi Li Huo Qiu which means Thunderclap fireball) is a spherical explosive weapon which has caltrops in the core, and is coated with a layer of gunpowder and a crust in ceramics. It is fired from throwing machines after lighting up the fuse, and they blow up when the fire reaches the gunpowder and dispenses the caltrops. The structure is also similar to modern fireworks.
– The tale of the Mongol Invasion of Japan (Mokoshurai ekotoba) [the picture on the bottom of the very left column]: The image of Tetsuhau exploding in front of a samurai during the battle of the Mongol invasion of Japan.
– The biography of Ieyasu Tokugawa [the photo on the top of the second left column]: In the book, it is mentioned that British delegates enjoyed watching fireworks display by merchants from the Ming dynasty on August 8, 1613.
– Hand-held fireworks [the two photos in the middle of the second left column]: The fireworks Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa and a Britisher John Saris appreciated is said to be the origin of hand-held fireworks called Tachihanabi. In the Mikawa area of Aichi prefecture, people continue to enjoy hand-held fireworks.
– The page of fireworks in the Illustrated Sino-Japanese Encyclopedia [the photo in the bottom of the second left column]: The Wakan Sansai Zue is an encyclopedia with illustrations published in 1712. In the 58th volume of the encyclopedia, there is the section of fireworks in the category of explosives. According to the book, “Fireworks can be used as a replacement to beacon fires, and, in summers, people can also enjoy them on a river bank. The formulation of fireworks can only be inherited by family members and it is never divulged to outsiders.”
– The picture of the Tokyo Ryogoku Bridge Kawabiraki Fireworks Festival by Shungyo Nagashima [the topmost picture on the panel]: This specific fireworks festival was held in the middle of the Meiji era. Manners and customs during the Meiji period are illustrated, such as western-style architectures and clothes, rickshaws, and the crowds of people, which highlights the success of the festival. Moreover, we can observe how advanced the fireworks were at that time.
– The picture of the Ryogoku Kawabiraki festival by an unknown artist [the picture on the top of the second right column]: The fireworks were shot approximately 20 meters above the ground, and the fireworks boat – fireworks are shot from boats – can be found if you trace the path of the fireworks. The surface of the river is covered by numerous boats brimming with people enjoying a cool evening.
– The picture of people enjoying a cool evening and fireworks by Kunimitsu Utagawa [the picture on the second bottom of the second right column]: This picture is said to have been drawn between 1804 and 1818. The fireworks boat with a red lantern can be seen on the river, and the fireworks are launched from the tube that the fireworks artist holds. The fireworks are illustrated in a magnificent and splendid manner in this picture although the actual size of the fireworks is believed to be about the same as the modern casual fireworks that you can purchase from stores.
– A selected piece from the picture book of Moronobu Hishikawa in the first volume of the ukiyoe collection [the picture at the bottom of the second right column]: This ukiyoe was painted by Moronobu Hishikawa who is well-known for the masterpiece “Beauty Looking Back” in 1691. There are fountain-like fireworks called fukidashi hanabi and wheel-shaped fireworks (kurumabi), which rotate using the energy of fireworks’ jets.
– “Illustrated catalogue of the daylight” by Jinta Hirayama [the photo on the middle of the very right column]: The fireworks Hirayama launched in the Yokohama harbors were widely acknowledged, and his fireworks started to be exported to overseas markets. Moreover, Hirayama invented the daylight fireworks (hiruhanabi), and he became the first Japanese to receive a patent in the United States in 1883.
– The catalogue of “Star Mines” [the three photos on the bottom of the very right column]: This is a catalogue created to promote exportation of Jinta Hirayama’s fireworks. Although the term “Star Mines” is mentioned in this catalogue, it is different from today’s “Star Mine” fireworks, which means the launch of fireworks in rapid succession.