One legend was probably imported from China in the
Heian Era (794-1185), and its associated Tanabata Festival has developed through
the centuries. The story involves the stars of Vega and Altair and their
apparent proximity to the Milky Way.
Krupp (1991) provides an excellent account of the story in its Chinese form.
Essentially the same in character, there are some noticeable adaptations made in
the Japanese version based on unique social values and seasonal needs. In Japan,
the star Vega is often called Orihime Boshi (Weaving Princess Star), and Altair
is often called Kengyuu Boshi or Hiko Boshi (Puller of Cows Star).
The legend is based on a tale about Princess
Shokujo, the weaving girl, and her father, the Celestial Emperor Tentei. They
lived on the east bank of the Heavenly River which is also known as the Milky
Way. The princess used to weave cloth for many gods in her father's mansion. She
was very attentive and serious about her work. After she became adult, her
father chose a herdsman named Kengyu the "Ox Puller" who ruled west of the
river, to be her groom.
Shokujo and Kengyu were introduced, fell in love and got married. However, their
honeymoon lasted so long that they both neglected to perform their duties.
Kengyu's oxen became thin and weak. The gods were angry because Shokujo was not
weaving cloth for them. Emperor Tentei decided to punish the young couple and
condemned them to be separated by the river, only allowing them to meet one
night every year. The river dividing their kingdoms was very deep and swift.
There was no bridge so the couple relied on magpies to flock together on this
night to form a path so Shokujo could walk over to meet her husband.
As many other Japanese traditions, Tanabata has its origin in a Chinese
tradition but has become distinctively Japanese over the centuries. Today, the
legend says that Shokujo is Vega, the Princess Star, and Kengyu is Altair, the
Prince Star. One time each year these two stars cross paths, hence, they've
become known as the star-crossed lovers. If it rains on the night of July 7th,
it is said that the river overflows and they cannot meet again until next year.
Tanabata may be translated as "weaving with the
loom (bata) placed on the shelf (tana)", and the festival celebrates improvement
of technical skill and ability. As in China, ancient Japanese added specific
values to their wishes that Orihime hone her skills and work hard so that she
could meet Kengyuu. In modern celebrations of Tanabata, people throughout Japan
write wishes (generally for themselves or relatives) to the kami (deity) Orihime
on colorful strips of paper. On the evening of Tanabata, they tie these paper
wishes to freshly cut bamboo. Wishes may be for increased skills in work or
school (reflecting specific vitalistic and optimistic values) but may also be
for anything that reflects a person's dreams and hopes for the future. Summer
vegetables such as eggplant and cucumbers are prepared, and horse or cow figures
made out of straw and water oats are decorated. While the myth probably held
seasonal significance in its Chinese origins, specifically the celebration of
the end of the rainy season (reflected in a desire that it not rain), it found a
variety of interpretations related to seasonality in its Japanese form.
Particularly in relation to agricultural development in Japan, "wishes" related
to celebrations of Tanabata ranged from desire for dry weather to desire for wet
weather depending on the particular geographic region and whether a crop was to
be planted or harvested at this time.
Related to this legend, ancient Japanese celebrated the festival of Tanabata on
the 7th day of the 7th month each year (lunar calendar). The 7th day of the 7th
month generally falls in August or September in the Gregorian calendar. At this
time of year, of course, the constellations of Lyra and Aquila are prominent in
the evening sky with their major stars (Vega and Altair) separated by the Milky
Way. The 7th day of the 7th month also, of course, finds a waxing crescent moon
reaching its first quarter. If it is not raining, both Orihime Boshi (Vega) and
Kengyuu (Altair) are quite conspicuous at the time of the Tanabata festival.