Japanese fireworks (Hanabi): the ephemeral nature and symbolism

Damien Liu-Brennan, Mio Bryce

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Hanabi (lit. flower fire) were popularised and developed during the resplendent days of Edo and have come to hold cultural significance in Japan both in physical displays and metaphorically as a symbol of ephemeral beauty. Despite the obvious appreciation of physical beauty and a regard for the craftsmanship of Japanese fireworks; comprehensive information encompassing the development of fireworks culture in Japan, the history, and any intricate symbolism, is not widely known or appreciated within Japan, let alone abroad. Fireworks are claimed to have been introduced to Japan c1600, however, the fireworks tradition and culture seen throughout Japan today can largely be attributed to an honouring of tragic events when in 1733 fireworks were displayed on the Sumida River in Edo (now Tokyo) as part of a memorial service for the victims of starvation due to crop failures and plague, and an epidemic of cholera. This fireworks display inaugurated the “Ryōgoku Kawabiraki Hanabi” (Ryōgoku River-Opening Fireworks) in which only 20 fireworks were displayed. Further absorption of fireworks into Japanese culture has led to the numerous variety of small and large scale displays dispersed across the country today. Aiding progression, Japan entered an era, under the Tokugawa shogunate, with near entirety of peace, that lasted for approximately 250 years and as a consequence, the necessity for gunnery was diminished. The usage of gunpowder throughout this time therefore had a different outcome as its purpose was redirected from aggressive power into a peaceful product that, correlating with Japanese aesthetics, could represent life and ephemeral beauty.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)189-201
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Journal of the Arts in Society
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Bibliographical note

Copyright Common Ground and The Author/s. Article originally published in International Journal of the Arts in Society, Vol. 4, Issue 5 (2010), p.189-201. This version archived on behalf of the author/s and is available for individual, non-commercial use. Permission must be sought from the publisher to republish or reproduce or for any other purpose.


  • Hanabi
  • fireworks
  • Edo Period
  • Sumida River
  • gunpowder
  • ephemeral
  • Japan


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