Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.
Takako Ishii is an expert on Japanese fireworks and a leading member of one of Japan’s top fireworks appreciation clubs. Well versed in firework history, types, creation, and firing methods, Ishii travels to and documents over 60 events a year. She is also involved in planning fireworks events, and makes frequent media appearances.
August 15, 2017
*You will leave the NHK website.
Along with the hum of cicadas, the twinkling of wind chimes and the cracking of baseball bats, nothing quite defines Japanese summers like the bursting of fireworks. Literally thousands of fireworks events are held around the country and are attended by millions of spectators. For many in Japan, it simply isn’t summer without fireworks—but why? That’s the question posed in this edition of Japanology Plus.
In Japan, as we learn in the program, fireworks displays can be traced back to the gunpowder that entered the country in the 16th century. But as with many of its imports, Japan has refined fireworks to the point where they’ve become uniquely Japanese.
For many, fireworks are as Japanese as Mt. Fuji.
Take, for example, the sparklers host Peter Barakan and main guest Takako Ishii try out during the program. The ones from eastern Japan burn at different speeds and colors as they go, representing the different stages of life, while the ones from western Japan are manufactured to emit sparks in a slight breeze. Sparklers may exist throughout the world, but few show such attention to detail, let alone stand as a metaphor for life itself!
Actually, these two sparklers serve as an additional metaphor—for the differences between east and west Japan. Japan is sometimes thought of as having one monolithic culture, but its varied geography and long history mean that’s anything but the case. In fact, east and west, very broadly represented by Tokyo and Osaka, respectively, are considered cultural opposites in many ways. Tokyoites are thought of as quiet and serious while Osakans are seen as possessing a devil-may-care friendliness—cliches, to be sure, but perhaps ones that help explain why east Japan’s sparklers invite quiet contemplation while the west’s work better blowing in the wind.
On the left, sparklers from west Japan; on the right, those from the east.
Yukata, summer and fireworks are practically inseparable in Japan.
The finale of the program takes us to a fireworks display—and both host and guest are dressed for the occasion in yukata. Okay, you ask, but what exactly is a yukata, and how does it differ from a kimono? For an in-depth look at the latter, you can click on over to Japanology Plus #11, but in short, a yukata is a kimono—specifically, the summer version. Yukata are much more casual (and less expensive) than their formal counterparts and are a pretty common sight on the streets in summertime. Just don’t confuse them with jinbei, another type of casual summer wear—jinbei are the ones with shorts.
In Plus One, Matt Alt encounters some yukata-clad spectators as he discovers how volunteers help keep one fireworks event running smoothly.
Peter remarks that the Japanese have a tendency to wear specific clothing to specific events, and yukata are far from the only “uniforms” you’ll see on the streets in Japan. There are the stereotypical suits worn by so-called salarymen, of course, and the even darker, more regimented suits worn by soon-to-graduate university students on the hunt for a job. Even subcultural groups have a tendency to dress alike—this author was shocked at his first Japanese rock concert to see fans wearing the T-shirt of the band playing on-stage, a definite sartorial no-no in the Western rock scene.
This tendency toward uniformity in dress might reinforce the idea that the Japanese are lacking in individualism, but the interviews with fireworks fans throughout the program reveal very personal reasons for attending the displays. From the young man who enjoys the melancholy feeling of fading fireworks, to the photographer who revels in the panoramic spectacle, to the young couple on their first date, the reasons for coming out to see the fireworks are as varied as the types of fireworks themselves.
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