The Japanese Tanabata is a legend of stars and love under the summer night sky: let’s explore how people in modern Japan approach this myth through the song Summer Tears Diary.
The legend of Tanabata
Born in China, the legend of Tanabata became common in the Japanese court only after the Heian period (794 – 1185). The protagonists of the story are Orihime (織 姫), daughter of the god of the sky, and Hikoboshi (彦 星), the cowherd. The girl is busy weaving the clothes of the gods all alone every day, so her father decides to marry her to Hikoboshi. At first the two manage to navigate between marriage and work. Soon, however, they are overwhelmed by their own love, spending all the time together. This infuriates the gods, who find their robes torn and animals wandering around out of control. Despite the reproaches of Orihime’s father, the two turn a deaf ear, so the god punishes them by separating them forever.
Orihime, far from Hikoboshi, does nothing but cry and despair, moving her father. He decides that the two lovers meet only one day a year. The chosen date is the seventh night of the seventh month. But be careful: the lunar calendar was in use at the time, in which the seventh month corresponds to August in the solar calendar in use today.
If you observe the summer sky in the Boreal Emisphere, you will notice three very bright stars: Orihime, the star Vega, and Hikoboshi, the star Altair, respectively in the constellations of Lyra and Aquila, as part of the summer triangle with Deneb. The Milky Way, the sacred river in the legend, separates Altair and Vega.
A flock of magpies fly across the river to allow Orihime and Hikoboshi to meet. The Japanese tradition associates these animals with marital well-being and happiness. Meanwhile, Deneb accompanies Orihime to her husband.
Summer Tears Diary
Summer Tears Diary was written by Kodama Saori and composed by Mito for the anime ‘’Aikatsu Stars!’’ in 2016. It serves as an image song for two of the main idol characters, Yozora and Mahiru. The two teenage sisters, separated by life choices, are able to meet again during Tanabata. Different versions of the song exist, depending on the story and characters singing.
The song first appears in episode 14, when Mahiru (Hoshizaki Kana) tries to catch up with her older sister as Tanabata approaches; in episode 15, the two sisters clear their misunderstandings under the night sky.
The two of us really found each other
Now we have a relationship more special than anyone’s.
Yozora (Amane Miho) states that she was waiting, faithful that her sister would come and meet her. The song doesn’t appear further in the anime, but in episode 64 Yozora crosses continents to see Mahiru on the night of Tanabata. She recognises the similarity with Hikoboshi and Orihime, destined to meet on that one night.
It appears from the lyrics that Kodama refers to the lunar calendar dates for Tanabata.
With a momentary flash of light, tears run the night sky
Before the autumn constellations finally arrive
We’ll part under the summer night sky.
The tears are a metaphor for the Perseids meteor shower, occurring around August 6-11. This is reinforced by the reference to the autumn constellations, as September is already considered an autumn month in Japan.
When September comes, we’ll be far apart
Wearing different uniforms.
The lyrics and music of Summer Tears Diary have melancholic and nostalgic traits, while the choreography mirrors aspects of the star festival. The performance revolves around the theme of Tanabata: the clothes take inspiration from Chinese culture, the anime stage resembles a stage used for music and dance performance during summer festivals in Japan.
The Japanese and nature
The Japanese are close to nature, attentive to its manifestations in an effort to understand its essence. They consider themselves an integral part of it, believing in an inner “natural” soul which is a variation of nature. This awareness allows them to keep the natural element and the human element on the same level of consideration. As Steven Heine noted, the Japanese have developed a culturally constructed view of nature, derived by approaching it through own feelings. In modern times, it’s customary in Japan to second this aspect by making lifestyle choices based on nature’s cyclicality. From eating certain foods to attend specific events and festivals, or buying household items associated with luck; it’s also common to recreate natural elements, like the Moon and stars, by using simple objects that literally or figuratively represent them.
The cult of nature has ancient roots, in the times when it was felt as a powerful and frightening force. It constitutes the basis of Shinto, the original religion of Japan; Shinto doesn’t rely on anthropomorphic deities, but embraces a reality where every single thing in the world hosts a god. Steven Renshaw and Saori Ihara point out that this view is important in shaping foreign notions to the Japanese’s taste. They also challenge the misconception that the ancient Japanese weren’t interested in astronomy because they didn’t produce any scientific results from their observations; they instead shift the attention on the way the Japanese ‘incorporated astronomy into an extant system of belief and purpose’ into their society through Japan’s unique history.
Another scholar, Lucia Dolce, introduces Japan’s interest in astronomy and astrology by discussing examples of shrines and temples and the related worshipped deity. There are cultural-astronomical reasons for the location of a shrine, the dates of festivals, the type of items for sale on the grounds and so on; that is also reflected on the choice by modern Japanese to pray at a given shrine or temple for specific favours, establishing a continuity between human and natural realms.
This explains why it’s so common for the Japanese to refer to the natural context even in pop culture. It is therefore not surprising to find hints of this type in films, anime or songs, as nature intertwined with tradition is part of everyday life. Indeed, as with Summer Tears Diary, it is often customary to release the episode or song around the days of a festival. This too contributes to creating continuity between nature and life and leads to more appreciation of the symbolic value of both piece and practices associated with the myths.
From myth into everyday life
The influence of Chinese astronomy and astrology on Japanese ethno-astronomy is indisputable. Over the centuries, many elements imported from the continent, most often by intellectual and religious elites, have become essential components of Japanese popular culture.
Tanabata is one of the most famous examples of traditions of Chinese origin that are now integral to Japanese culture. The sky myths are often adapted for the Japanese audience to represent human fortunes, accompanied by rituals. The real essence of Tanabata is the possibility of expressing one’s wishes and hoping that they will come true; people write their wishes on colored strips of paper , no matter what the prayer or the dream they want to fulfill. They then hung the strips on bamboo branches, where they sway in the breeze; at the end of the festival these are burnt in order to make them reach the sky to be realized. In Summer Tears Diary:
Near the end of summer
My wish that I’ll never turn into words will be swaying, please.
This also has a place in the anime, when Mahiru writes the wish to surpass her sister in the rankings. We see other characters’ wishes swaying on bamboo branches, as they take turns reading them.
Peculiarities of Tanabata include acts of kindness such as supporting the two stars and praying they can meet. Many cities and towns in Japan host events where participants light lanterns and either let them flow on a river or let them fly in the sky, symbolising the stars in the Milky Way that light the way of Orihime and Hikoboshi. No lyrics refer to it, however lanterns are present in the anime CGI stage. The Japanese also believe that on the evening of Tanabata it must not rain, otherwise Orihime and Hikoboshi would not be able to meet. People hang fabric dolls to doors and windows to scare off the spirit of the rain.
It’s customary for the Japanese to address prayers to the two stars. Young people ask for their feelings not to be hurt by love, or help in order to improve their skills and study. The same happens in Summer Tears Diary, when Mahiru and Yozora make a selfless request:
We’ll part under the summer night sky
But even in a new place, always be yourself, please…
A once a year promise
Some may think of Tanabata as a sad festival, as we already know that the two stars will part ways. Two factors make it a moment of joy, both related to the cyclic nature of nature described above. The spouses finally meet after a year and, even if forced to separate, they already know they will meet again. This doesn’t make separation any less painful, but awareness of nature’s cyclical motion helps to overcome it with some positivity. In Summer Tears Diary, the lyrics reflects the thought of the passing of time and changes.
I suddenly won’t search for you in my memories
I wonder if the faces of people I once meet fade a little at a time.
Once you become an adult
You pass over on time and distance easily.
One day, looking back on that person, your memories will be bittersweet. And it is something you accept, to grow and evolve to be able to meet stronger than before.
Don’t cry, your smile is etched tightly in my memory
I won’t forget this summer for sure
Don’t cry, smile so you’ll be able to say it properly
Goodbye Dear my best friend.
However, what matters is the present: being able to dedicate time to loved ones, and be happy together, even if for a little while.
This is why it’s so important to part with a smile.
Link to full lyrics here.
Cover: allegro Takahi – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
1: Giuseppe Donatiello “The Summer Triangle” – CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication.
2: Jim Epler “PracticingShinto”- Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
3: Izu navi “京の七夕：鴨川会場｜Kyoto Tanabata Festival Kamogawa Site”- Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
4: ★Kumiko★ “七夕” – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). Without changes.