Young Japanese bring new spark to fireworks custom

Older generations often bemoan the difficulty in getting young people to care about cultural events. Not so with hanabi, or 'fire-flowers.'

Older generations in Japan often bemoan the difficulty in getting young people to care about cultural events. But there is one annual custom which is in no danger of fizzling out: the summer fireworks festival.

Young people are flocking in greater numbers every year to these massive events and reinventing a time-honored Japanese tradition. Under the booms and bursts of light, they are finding a chance to hang out with friends and escape the pressures of school and work.

"I can forget about my job and just enjoy the night," says 28-year-old Maki Aota, who was one of an estimated half million people to attend this year's Adachi fireworks show in Tokyo.

From late July through August, crowds throng to fireworks displays in such numbers that police strictly enforce a no-stopping-to-gawk rule for pedestrians in an effort to alleviate the crush of bodies. Those who can't secure a viewing spot off the sidewalk have to mill around in circles peering upward. Multihour waits for trains home aren't unusual, and deadly stampedes sometimes occur.

Despite the crushing crowds, a recent survey by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living shows a boom in young fireworks devotees. The trend is particularly strong among single women in their 20s - the numbers for this group last year were up around 25 percent from 1998.

In the past, teens and 20-somethings generally watched fireworks with their families, but these days more are going with friends of their own age. "If you go with your family, you have to worry about family politics and minding your manners," says 22-year-old Munehiro Kamiya.

Many splurge on colorful and sometimes expensive yukata, a kind of summer kimono, to wear to the outing - and then use the fact that they bought it as an excuse to go to more than one display. "It's like a wedding - you have to wear the right costume to enjoy yourself," says fireworks viewer Kazuki Iwama.

The look is usually completed with a set of wooden clogs that can increasingly be seen mixed-and-matched with jeans and regular clothing on city streets. Like most fashions, yukata trends are constantly evolving and department stores do a booming business keeping young people decked out in the latest gear.

Fireworks have entertained generations of Japanese. Despite the island nation's proximity and close cultural ties to China, the arrival of fireworks in Japan came via Europe. Legend has it that European traders first introduced hanabi, or fire-flowers, to to samurai leaders sometime around 1600. Japan soon after sealed its borders to outsiders for more than 200 years, but it was during this period that the local fireworks culture was to flourish.

Watching pyrotechnical exhibitions quickly became a favorite pastime of the nobles, and by the mid-1700s the great firework artisan families were holding regular hanabi battles on the banks of the Sumida River in Tokyo. Today's Sumida River fireworks, Japan's largest and most spectacular, attracts up to a million viewers each year.

The traditional wisdom is to go early to secure a good viewing spot, but the younger generation laughs at this idea.

"You definitely shouldn't do that - you'll use up all your strength before the event begins," says Makiko Aketa, a 19-year-old fireworks-display watcher who claims she has learned valuable techniques for surviving the summer hanabi season through years of experience. "You should go in a large group. If you have 10 people or more, then others have to get out of your way," she says.

But she has another recommendation that might upset fireworks viewing purists: Don't wear a yukata. It's too hard to find your friends when everybody's wearing the same thing, she explains. "Plain clothes are the way to go - they really stand out."

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