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Summer in Japan

Ephemeral Art, Etched in Memory

The Omagari Fireworks Festival in Akita 


Fireworks—the ephemeral art of colorfully illuminating the nocturnal sky—have become a traditional part of summer in Japan. As fireworks are set off in crackling booms and bursts of glittering light, one can feel the evening cool and forget the heat. July and August have become the time for fireworks, with festivals of great pyrotechnical prowess held in communities all over the country.
The Omagari district of Daisen City in Akita Prefecture is one such community. Every year on the fourth Saturday of August in this part of Tohoku region, a national fireworks competition takes place—the Omagari Fireworks Festival. In terms of magnitude, the din and the color, among other things, it is said to rank as one of the most spectacular fireworks festivals
in Japan.

People have marveled at the brilliant forms of fireworks originally made by packing gunpowder into the round paper shells that are launched into the night sky. According to Tadanobu Komatsu, the fifth-generation president of Komatsu Fireworks, which has been making and selling them in Omagari since 1885, the history of fireworks in Omagari goes back to the Edo Era. As provincial wars gave way to the more peaceful Edo Era, soldiers familiar with gunpowder found new ways to use their expertise, becoming pyrotechnicians, and gunpowder shops specializing in fireworks came onto the scene.

By and by, fireworks came to be launched as prayers for bountiful harvests. Setting off fireworks was not cheap, however, so wealthy landowners sponsored the displays, competing with each other to dazzle the crowds. Pyrotechnicians would incorporate technical advances in a friendly rivalry to create something never seen before. Fireworks also became side attractions at shrine festivals, and developed to the point that a fireworks competition was held in 1910. Omagari came to be known for its dazzling aerial displays.

High tech entered the world of fireworks in recent decades. Whereas in the old days fireworks were lit by hand, by the 1980s they were being ignited electrically, and from the 1990s the displays were even synchronized to music. Nowadays computers can control the launches with split-second accuracy.

Komatsu Fireworks has participated in Omagari fireworks competitions eighty-seven times running. At the August 2013 festival, its 'Rising Silver Line Five-Ring Changing-into-Chrysanthemum' offering won the prestigious Prime Minister's Award. 'Five-ring' refers to the five concentric rings inserted within the overall ring of the fireworks display, resulting in a palette of six colors altogether. Due to its complexity, this nearly perfect firework is seldom seen. Even at Komatsu, with its sophisticated technology, the 'Changing-into-Chrysanthemum' was eight years in the making.

Komatsu notes that, "Japanese pyrotechnicians seek the ultimate circle within the fireworks ring." To produce perfect concentric rings, one must go into the process so deeply that the results are too fine-grained for onlookers to fully appreciate. The actual achievement of circles with uniform density, each perfectly round, lasts for but a brief instant. But as Komatsu explains: "The fact that they disappear in a flash is the real greatness of fireworks, because we still remember them for the rest of our lives.
"You can see fireworks launched at riverbanks, along the seashore, and in big cities," Komatsu says. "From the heights of Tokyo SkyTree—Tokyo's newest landmark—you can watch the displays along theSumida River. I really hope that people will enjoy the fantastic variations of fireworks in Japan this summer."

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