七夕 Tanabata is known as the “star festival” in Japan.
In Okinawa, it is observed during the lunar calendar (like all the other holidays…) instead of the solar calendar (more typical in mainland Japan). It occurs on July 7th in many parts of mainland Japan, and the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in Okinawa, usually around August, just before Obon begins. It is the precursor to Obon; mostly it is the day to clean the ancestors’ grave, put flowers, beverages and incense in front of the grave to guide the ancestors’ spirits to come to one’s house.
In present day, Tanabata in Japan is typically celebrated as a school event; students decorate bamboo branches with ornaments and hang strips of colorful paper with their wishes written on them, called tanzaku 短冊. Ornaments made of origami paper are made into shapes such as windsock, stars, lanterns and nets. They all have a meaning; for instance, the net-shaped paper represents a river. Several retail stores and community centers will put up Tanabata trees with decorations, and leave blank slips of paper for you to write your wishes on to hang on the tree.
The story of Tanabata: There once was a young woman named Orihime, who was good at weaving cloth and worked very hard to the please her father. But, as she worked very hard she became afraid that she would never fall in love and marry. Her father, Tentei (Sky King), who was a god, arranged for her to meet a hard working cattleman Hikoboshi who lived across Amanogawa River on the eastern side, while Orihime and her father lived on the western side.
The two married, but subsequently she forgot about weaving and he let his cattle wander all over on both sides; this made Tentei angry. He ordered the two to separate and each to live on a separate side of the river. His daughter wept and pleaded, however, so Tentei relented a little, and allowed the two to meet once a year, on the night of the seventh day of the seventh month.
So, if you look up into the evening sky on July 7 and it is clear, you can see the two stars reunited. But if it is rainy or cloudy, know that they will try to meet again next year.
In Okinawa, the Tanabata story is usually a little different, and actually refers to the Celestial Maiden Legend (Hagoromo), which is believed to have occurred at Mori-no-kawa in Ginowan. The Ginowan summer matsuri is themed around the celestial maiden legend; even the city mascot is the celestial maiden!