Return of Sumida Fireworks Provides Relief for Pandemic-Hit Businesses

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Fireworks manufacturer Kohei Ogatsu speaks in front of samples at Marutamaya Ogatsu Fireworks Co. in Fuchu, Tokyo.

Nothing says summer in Japan like the explosion of fireworks on a sultry night. And one of the grandest and oldest festivals will be returning after a three-year pandemic hiatus, much to the relief of those whose livelihoods were largely dependent on the event.

The Sumida River Fireworks Festival will be held on July 29, and those involved in producing the pyrotechnics and working in auxiliary businesses are as excited as the spectators to see the sky lighting up again for the midsummer Tokyo tradition.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A massive firework colors the night sky in the most recent Sumida River Fireworks Festival on July 27, 2019.

It’s been a long and tough road back.

“I want to our fireworks to be memorable for everyone who sees them,” said Kohei Ogatsu, 41, the fifth-generation owner of Marutamaya Ogatsu Fireworks Co.

The company in Fuchu, Tokyo, will produce 9,500 of the 20,000 fireworks — the same as pre-pandemic levels — to be used in the Sumida festival.

Since joining the company at 24, Ogatsu has put on spectacular firework shows both at home and abroad. But the Sumida River extravaganza holds a particularly special place in his heart.

Ogatsu says he likes nothing more than the warmth he feels when the spectators call out “Good job,” or “Next year, too,” from both sides of the river after the show ends.

The Sumida River festival is said to have started in 1733 in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867), when restaurants in the vicinity of the Ryogoku Bridge launched fireworks to comfort victims of famine, epidemics and other misfortune, and as a prayer to ward off pestilence.

The modern-day festival was started in 1978 and annually attracts about 1 million spectators.

When the coronavirus began spreading in the spring of 2020, life came to a standstill on streets around the country and fireworks events were cancelled one after another. Sales at Marutamaya Ogatsu plummeted.

In an effort to “give the people a boost with fireworks,” Ogatsu and a number of fellow fireworks technicians joined up to hold unannounced events across the country in June that year. They kept the shows secret in order to prevent large crowds in the days of social distancing.

The many calls of appreciation he received over the “secret fireworks” helped encourage him through the hard times.

Ogatsu never suspended operations and always remained ready to put on a show at a moment’s notice. His staff of about 20 workers continued the detailed manufacturing of fireworks.

Concerned fans would often ask him, “What about the Sumida fireworks?” So it was with great relief when he learned of the decision in April that the fireworks would be held this year. “I can finally give them what they want,” he said.

For this year’s event, Ogatsu will launch special fireworks that the company has spent six months creating.

“It hit me that fireworks can only be displayed in times of peace,” he said. “I hope people will enjoy the festival with their family, friends or other loved ones.”

Back in the flow

A traditional and popular way to watch the sky sparkling overhead is while floating on the river on a roofed barge known as “yakatabune,” which is among the many businesses for which the Sumida festival is a high point of the year.

“It will be a relief when I see the fireworks. I may cry,” said Namiko Takahashi, 44, who is among the operators of the pleasure boats who have long awaited the resumption of the event.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Namiko Takahashi, who operates a fleet of “yakatabune” pleasure boats in Edogawa Ward, smiles as she talks about the Sumida River Fireworks Festival to be held for the first time in four years.

Takahashi oversees the long-established Ami-Tatsu Co. based in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward. An Okinawa native, she moved to Tokyo for university and later started working part-time at Ami-Tatsu, which dates back to 1916.

Takahashi fondly recalls the first time she watched the fireworks show from a yakatabune. “It was like a work of art floating in the night sky,” she said.

She married the current president and became the proprietress in 2012. It was smooth sailing until the pandemic arrived and nearly scuttled the business.

The entire industry took a hit to its image when a cluster of infections broke out on another company’s boat. It was close to the cherry blossom-viewing season, but every reservation was cancelled.

The boats, which would normally be elegantly coming and going with their paper lanterns lit, were instead left moored to a dark wharf. “They looked lonely and crying,” Takahashi said.

To keep the company afloat, Takahashi and the staff wracked their brains on ways to produce income and get people back onto the boats.

The signature dish of yakatabune is tempura, and Ami-Tatsu started a take-out meal of tendon, or tempura on rice. It also started operating a “sweets yakatabune” that served desserts in an appeal to a young female clientele.

“We all have had to go through hard times, Takahashi said. “The joy of seeing the fireworks will certainly be something special.”

A new set of problems

The enthusiasm for the resumption of fireworks this summer is being tempered by a different set of problems facing local organizers. A lack of labor and inflated prices are forcing an increasing number of events to be cancelled.

The fireworks festival in the town of Onjuku, Chiba Prefecture, was scrubbed for the fourth consecutive year. Costs for the event had long been covered by donations from local businesses and residents, but the pandemic ravaged the local economy.

Combined with rampant inflation, it was determined that there would not be sufficient funds.

“It has become difficult to continue the event in the same format,” said Fumio Kissei, president of the town’s tourist association.

In Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, the fireworks had continued during the pandemic, albeit on a reduced scale. But this year, the event was canceled because a lack of securing sufficient security staff to deal with the parking situation.

A major fireworks show at Nagano Prefecture’s Lake Suwa was also abandoned due to a lack of funds for printing flyers and hiring security.