Dean Owen

4 years ago · 3 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

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It’s nice to see quite a few Japanese words make their way to the English language. 

For foodies, the trendy word these days is Umami, a fifth taste set “discovered” by the Japanese in the early 20th Century. 

The devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake brought to light another word that is now globally recognized, Tsunami

When you talk about going to see the “head honcho”, you might be forgiven for thinking the “honcho” is a Spanish reference, but it actually comes from the Japanese word hanchō, meaning “squad leader”. 

You might also think me an Otaku (geek) for going to a Karaoke bar last night as stress relief to avoid Karoshi (death from overwork). 

The very last time I laughed with my father was at dinner in Portugal where he asked me if I wanted any dessert.

“Why not try the Tiramisu?” he suggested. “That’s Japanese”

“Err, no it’s not dad. It’s Italian”

“Sounds Japanese to me...”

One word that is starting to gain traction is Hanabi.

Possibly my favourite word in any language, Hanabi simply refers to fireworks. In actual fact, the Kanji are two characters, Hana, meaning Flower, and Bi, meaning Fire. 

Up until I left England back in 1989, fireworks really meant for me “Remember Remember the Fifth of November”, a.k.a. Guy Fawkes Day. It was a day to celebrate a foiled plot by a Catholic dissident to blow up the Houses of Parliament back in 1605. We’d huddle around a bonfire with cheap fireworks and sparklers and swig on a half bottle of Johnnie Walker’s – 


That all changed during my first summer in Japan, but more on that later.

As you well know, fireworks were a follow on invention of one of the Four Great Inventions of China, the Compass, Gunpowder, Papermaking, and Printing. The ancient Chinese enjoyed the wizard like spectacle of throwing a mixture of potassium nitrate and sulphur into a fire and watching the resulting chaos. In order to somewhat control the chaos, a chap named Li Tian came upon the idea of stuffing the mixture into hollowed out bamboo and throwing that into the fire. This would hopefully direct the delightful sparks away from awestruck onlookers.

Fireworks are said to ward off evil spirits and are used frequently all over China during festivals, weddings, funerals, housewarmings, project starts and completions, and shop openings.

These days Chinese are pretty good at fireworks, and are the largest exporter in the World. My first abode in Shanghai had a marvelous view over Shanghai’s Century Park (think New York’s Central Park, but bigger) where in Autumn, they would hold a huge firework competition, the Shanghai International Music Fireworks Festival. Nations from around the world would compete to see who had the best display. It was OK – nothing special. I have fonder memories of watching the Monte Carlo International Fireworks Festival from the public beach in Monaco. Incidentally, the teams from Spain have chalked up the most wins since that Monaco competition started back in 1966.

I’ve just come off my 8th Chinese New Year holiday, a weeklong celebration where on seemingly every street in Shanghai you’ll have fireworks ensuring sleep depravation. It gets quite annoying to say the least.

Translate the word fireworks into Japanese, Hanabi, and all of a sudden the word has a different meaning. For me, Hanabi is synonymous with Japanese summer. The Hanabi Matsuri, or firework festivals, are held through the summer months, usually by the rivers. Couples dressed in light yukata, would take their mats in the early afternoon and pick a spot on the riverbank to spend the next few hours. They would bring Onigiri rice balls, portable BBQs, drinks, fruit, and snacks, and would play games, sing, and dance, while waiting for the display to start. Street vendors, or yatai, selling everything from yakitori to takoyaki would line the streets ensuring the swelling crowds were kept in good spirits. The displays were mesmerizing, and each bouquet that lit up the sky would draw huge gasps and cheers. The “happy face” fireworks were always hugely popular with the children. And then the display would end, and as the Japanese do so well, everyone would clear their own mess, ensuring all garbage and litter was cleared from the river banks. Some would stay on and party on the banks with games like Ping Pong Pang, whilst other couples would head off into the night for some ramen (pronounced lahmen) or a round of Karaoke.

The two things I miss most about Japan are Hanabi and Hanami. Hanami, meaning flower watching, is the Japanese tradition of picnicking under cherry blossoms in Spring, but are more of a excuse to get plastered after a hard day at the office. But the Hanabi festivals of Japan are truly fabulous.

The largest Hanabi in the World

With such an international community, I would love to know what fireworks mean to you. In India, I know for example that fireworks are used during Diwali, The Festival of Lights. In America, I think of the Fourth of July celebrations or Disneyland. What season do you associate with fireworks. Do share your fond memories below.

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Ken Boddie

4 years ago #25

Damn! Will miss it again

Dean Owen

4 years ago #24

Well the cherry blossom season decided to make an early appearance this year:

Wayne Yoshida

4 years ago #23

Dean - LOL. My fault/my typo. Yes, I meant to say graveyard shift custodian. Although -- there is a graveyard in front of the Haunted Mansion. And - great idea for a live video, the fumbling and running away could be funny.

Dean Owen

4 years ago #22

I had to google graveyard custodian. I thought it either meant graveyard shift, or perhaps Disneyland had an actual onsite graveyard for some reason. I have fond memories of taking girls to Tokyo Disneyland or Disneysea after work to see the fireworks. Would have loved to have worked there in my youth instead of the load of restaurant and supermarket gigs I did. Now all there is to do is to wait in anticipation for you to do a Live Buzz and recreate some of those pyrotechnical experiments!

Wayne Yoshida

4 years ago #21

Thanks Dean Owen. I am amazed by the 420 kg shell. Google mass translator says that is 925.942 pounds. Yikes. I have two fond fireworks memories: (1) When a few of us in high school chemistry got to be "lab assistants" and had access to the stockroom. We did a lot of fun authorized and non-authorized pyrotechnical experiments. And (2) When I worked at Disneyland as a graveyard custodian, and we had access to plenty of "non guest" areas of the park - including the fireworks launch pad. Although the area was off-limits to us, one employee parking lot was a safe zone and so close we could see all the wires and stuff . . . and had an excellent and private view. Although the giant shell in the video is impressive, D/L did a fireworks show every night in the summertime.

Dean Owen

4 years ago #20

I very almost moved to Australia back in the 80's. Even packed my bags. But a change in circumstances caused an about face at the last minute. What you describe Ken-san sounds very enticing, but it also sounds very much like my hometown of London, which has, in my lifetime, become probably the most diverse city on Earth.

Dean Owen

4 years ago #19

I love the story of "Uncle" Prakesh. I assume you are using the word "Uncle" as we do so often in S.E.Asia, not to describe a relative, but to describe an elderly man who we are very fond of. If there is one country that I would recommend everyone visit, it has to be Japan. It is so unique, colourful, creative, futuristic, yet firmly planted in tradition. And the people are just so polite and well mannered.

Ken Boddie

4 years ago #18

I sometimes wonder if English is the main language here in Oz, Dean-san. In a taxi here in Brissie you're likely to hear Punjabi or have a coffee in West End and you're in old man Greek land. Italian is the tongue in Lygon St in Melbourne and you have a good chance of hearing Afrikaans or Chinese Indonesian in Perth. As for Sydney CBD, throw the dice and whatever comes up, it's unlikely to be English. And then there's the slowly dying Strine. No wonder so many Aussies can't spell and have poor English grammar. The teachers are all from somewhere else. 😂

🐝 Fatima G. Williams

4 years ago #17

Such a beautiful display of firework ! So fascinating and magical. I love the culture there and I guess I can survive if I ever come to live there considering my love for trying anything new these days :) Hanabi is a must watch life time experience. Fireworks in India are absolutely spectacular but I have nothing of this magnitude anywhere. As a child I lived next door to an uncle named Prakash who used to put up a firework shop only during Diwali for sale . Since we never celebrated Diwali , he would call us to watch and light a few when he was lighting them up for his son and daughter. Apart from the one's that light up in the sky, the flower-pots and chase-me-Charley's I dislike the noisy dangerous ones. I've not had the chance to see Dubai's new year fireworks for the last 2 years as I go on Holidays during that time. But during EID and New year's the firework is said to be fascinating in UAE. I will do a live buzz for the next upcoming fireworks display. There's a lot I'd like you guys to see here :) Thanks Dean Owen Chan I enjoyed this buzz and my bucket-list is getting heavier :) :)

Dean Owen

4 years ago #16

Fireworks in themselves are a bit ironic. But I have always thought to live my life like a firework if that makes sense.

Dean Owen

4 years ago #15

Thanks for the wonderful comment Devesh Bhatt. As you may know, the Chinese govt has really clamped down on the prolific use of fireworks in light of the 2009 fire that destroyed the Beijing TV Cultural Center in addition to a drive to clean up pollution. But that really hasn't stopped it much. I can still hear fireworks as I type. (It is the last weekend of the Chinese NY). Fire fountains are popular in Japan at every festival. They are called Niagara. And I have seen a burning phoenix before, usually a metal frame bird adorned with sparklers, drawn across the sky on a pulley. These ones are kites in Korea -

Dean Owen

4 years ago #14

And the cherry blossoms! A gift from the Japanese back in 1912.

Dean Owen

4 years ago #13

It seems fireworks are broadly used around the World to celebrate Independence from those pesky British of whom I am one!

Dean Owen

4 years ago #12

I've been scouting a new country to lay my hat and recently someone suggested Canada. Apart from the cold winters it all sounds enticing, but I do have a preference for countries where English is not the main language. Quebec perhaps?

CityVP Manjit

4 years ago #11

For nearly three decades of my life it was all about Nov 5th. Today I love the 21st Century retelling of the Guy Fawkes story in V for Vendetta As for fireworks where I live now, they have a climate change initiative where we shut our power for 1 hour and then later on the year the city engages a huge firework display, I find that constantly ironic considering what is said here :

I love learning about other cultures and thank you for sharing, Dean. What a spectacular display of fireworks you have shared and I 've always been curious about how some of them explode into what appears to be delicate layers of colors and lights. I watch fireworks on the Fourth of July and New Years Eve.

Devesh 🐝 Bhatt

4 years ago #9

Your wonderful buzz has really got me curious about fireworks . Bits and pieces come to mind regarding India. Kautilya/Chanakya had mentioned Agnichurna (recipe unknown) for smoke and fire based clay balls. One of Ashoka's pillar edicts has a Govt inscription banning the commercial sale of potassium nitrate and sulphur. Made me wonder if there were Chinese people who visited India before Fa-hien and probably shared this knowledge. Recently there was a case in the Supreme Court of India stating , ban fireworks as they are a modern inclusion into Diwali, not part our Culture. A reference by the defence lawyer was made to Chinese firework exports to India in the 16th Century where Adil Shah had a display of fire fountains at the Yamuna River bank and a Purple Flame Bird, whatever that is. We do get fire fountains today, but no Purple Flame Bird, I wonder what it is :)

Dean Owen

4 years ago #8

Cricket and fireworks. Who would have thought? Would love to put on a firework show but those festivals are expensive, with each firework costing up to $2000, and each display using between 50,000 to 130,000 fireworks (for the larger displays in Tokyo). All sponsored by big Japanese corp.

Dean Owen

4 years ago #7

oh I don't really do much Karaoke these days. I had to do a lot working in Asia as clients demanded it, especially the Wall Street crowd, but they weren't necessarily there for the singing.

Gert Scholtz

4 years ago #6

Dean Owen Honcho is actually from Japanese - never knew that. A proximate South African equivalent of Hanabi Matsuri is what we call a "Braai" - with fireworks when watching the end of a cricket match. Shall we then have a Braai sometime in Japan and a Hanabi Matsuri when next you are in South Africa? Thanks for an interesting post Dean.

Lisa Gallagher

4 years ago #5

This was extremely interesting Dean Owen, the fireworks display, WOW!!! I've never witnessed fireworks that beautiful where I live. Our celebration, July 4th has always been to celebrate Independence day. In 1776 we adopted the declaration of Indepence and the US was no longer part of the British Empire. However, I think over many years it many just celebrate to celebrate. When I was young we would go to the beach where fireworks were displayed. We'd sit on the hill and watch the fireworks over Lake Erie and they were beautiful. As time progressed and we moved to a smaller town the fireworks were a disappointment and we quit going to see them. Many people have picnics/barbecues on July 4th along with family gatherings. Loved the line about the Tiramisu, one of my favorite Italian desserts! I can see how your dad thought it may be a Chinese dessert because of the spelling. Karaoke, ok.. you rock! The last time I did Karaoke, I sang Stairway to Heaven... wasn't too bad. But then I had to do another song and my brother/sister in law were almost hiding under the table haha. I had a few too many White Russians. Thanks for this, enjoyed the story, history and videos!

Ken Boddie

4 years ago #4

I understand that Golden Week will start while we're in Hong Kong, where we'll stop over for a few days on the way back. Just as well, as giant dongas are about as big a drawcard for me as durian.

Pascal Derrien

4 years ago #3

Hanami c'est joli :-) 14th of July , fireworks in almost every corner of the country even the poorest district would make a point about getting one for the national day celebrating the revolution of 1789

Dean Owen

4 years ago #2

ようこそう! Are you going to be there during the Golden Week holidays or early April? You might be able to catch the infamous Kanamara Festival which is celebrated with a parade of a giant male bodypart. Hope you get to Onsen although Spring is not ideal for hotsprings. Can wait to hear all about it!

Ken Boddie

4 years ago #1

I'm soaking this up with relish, Dean-san, since Bakti and I have a trip booked to Japan in April. We had hoped to see the Hanami but are likely to miss much of the blossom. As for Hanabi, that's one thing we do pretty well in Brisvegas. Any excuse is a good excuse to "see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot". Except we Aussies aren't the best at cleaning up our mess afterwards. Good to see you back on the horse. 👍

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