Wishing on the Stars
By Storyteller,Maria LoBiondo
Serendipitous discoveries make travel all the sweeter and so it was when my daughter and I came upon a beautiful garden in an otherwise nondescript Tokyo neighborhood on our recent trip to Japan.
After watching turtles basking on rocks and carp swimming below as we crossed the bridge, my daughter settled down to sketch the scenery and I rested under a wisteria bower outfitted with picnic tables. On two sides of the structure bamboo branches festooned with multicolored streamers flapped in the breeze. On closer examination, the streamers had Japanese characters on them. Then I saw a table with markers, blank papers, and the invitation (thankfully in English as well as Japanese) to write a wish and attach it to a bough.
The colorful branches celebrated Tanabata, the Star Festival, held on the seventh day of the seventh month. On Tanabata, so the story goes, two lovers – now the stars Altair and Vega -- meet annually on the Milky Way. Originally a Chinese legend, the Japanese tale revolves around a weaver princess and her love for a cowherd. Her father, Emperor of the Sky, separated the lovers when the princess neglected her work but allows this night to reconnect. The lovers hope for clear skies; if it rains they must wait another year for the chance to be together again. Wishes are made for their happy reunion – and for personal dreams to come true.
The simplest version of the Tanabata story is a how and why tale about two stars in the summer sky. But I had stumbled upon a more complex version in preparation for our trip when I read several Japanese folk tale collections as well as touring guidebooks.
“The Woman Who Came From Heaven” in Folktales of Japan edited by Keigo Seki (University of Chicago Press, 1963) includes the well-known motifs of wooing by stealing the clothes of a bathing girl and impossible tasks for a hero to fulfill, and ends with the two lovers becoming Altair and Vega.
What I noticed in this story as well as many of the folk tales was the sense of a more serious mood, sometimes mysterious and sometimes melancholy. Consider the well-known story “The Crane Wife,” in which the crane sacrifices herself for her husband and then flies away. In Margaret Read MacDonald’s Look Back and See: Twenty Lively Tales for Gentle Tellers (H.W. Wilson, 1991), “The Singing Turtle” dies in the story.
I learned that there is a literary construct that helps illuminate the Japanese view: mono no aware. Most often associated with cherry blossom season, mono no aware is not so much an expression of sadness as an acute appreciation for the beauty of the moment, knowing it will not last forever.
“The Woman Who Came From Heaven” hints at this. Seki’s book is a rich source for tellers and teachers who want to use this story or others to compare and contrast cultural perspectives on familiar motifs. Before each folk tale are cross-references with story types as well as explanations of the tale’s Japanese roots and particular Japanese terms.
My daughter and I each had a chance at different times to add our wishes to Tanabata branches. But one of the most noted Japanese Star Festivals, marked by the lunar calendar and held around August 7, is in Sendai, near where the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, did so much damage. It was still held there last year, and will be held again this month.