Hundreds of Wonderful Japanese Firework Designs from the Early-1900s: Digitized and Free to Download

The Japan­ese term for fire­works, han­abi (花火), com­bines the words for fire, bi (), and flower, hana (). If you’ve seen fire­works any­where, that deriva­tion may seem at least vague­ly apt, but if you’ve seen Japan­ese fire­works, it may well strike you as evoca­tive indeed. The tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese way with pre­sent­ing flow­ers, their shapes and col­ors as well as their scents, has some­thing in com­mon with the tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese way of putting on a fire­works show.

Not that the pro­duc­tion of fire­crack­ers goes as far back, his­tor­i­cal­ly, as the arrange­ment of flow­ers does, nor that fire­crack­ers them­selves, orig­i­nal­ly a prod­uct of Chi­na, have any­thing essen­tial­ly Japan­ese about them.

But as more recent­ly with cars, com­ic books, con­sumer elec­tron­ics, and Kit-Kats, when­ev­er Japan re-inter­prets a for­eign inven­tion, the project amounts to rad­i­cal re-inven­tion, and often a daz­zling one at that.

These Japan­ese ver­sions of non-Japan­ese things often become high­ly desir­able around the world in their own right. It cer­tain­ly hap­pened with Japan­ese fire­works, here proud­ly dis­played in these ele­gant and vivid­ly col­ored Eng­lish cat­a­logs of Hiraya­ma Fire­works and Yokoi Fire­works, pub­lished in the ear­ly 1900s by C.R. Brock and Com­pa­ny, whose found­ing date of 1698 makes it the old­est fire­work con­cern in the Unit­ed King­dom.

These Brocks cat­a­logs been dig­i­tized by the Yoko­hama Board of Edu­ca­tion and made avail­able online at the Inter­net Archive. Though I’ve nev­er seen a fire­works show in Yoko­hama, that city, dot­ted as it is with impec­ca­bly designed pub­lic gar­dens, cer­tain­ly has its flower-appre­ci­a­tion cre­den­tials in order.

Orga­nized into such cat­e­gories as “Ver­ti­cal Wheels,” “Phan­tom Cir­cles,” and “Col­ored Flo­ral Bomb Shells,” the cat­a­logs present their import­ed Japan­ese wares sim­ply, as var­i­ous pat­terns of col­or against a black or blue back­ground. But sim­plic­i­ty, as even those only dis­tant­ly acquaint­ed with Japan­ese art have seen, sup­ports a few par­tic­u­lar­ly strong and endur­ing branch­es of Japan­ese aes­thet­ics.

No mat­ter where you take in your dis­plays of fire­works, you’ll sure­ly rec­og­nize more than a few of these designs from hav­ing seen them light up the night sky. And as far as where to look for the next fire­work inno­va­tor, I might sug­gest South Korea, where I live: at this past sum­mer’s Seoul Inter­na­tion­al Fire­works fes­ti­val I wit­nessed fire­works explod­ing into the shape of cat faces, whiskers and all. Such elab­o­rate­ness many vio­late the more rig­or­ous ver­sions of the Japan­ese sen­si­bil­i­ty as they apply to han­abi — but then again, just imag­ine what won­ders Japan, one of the most cat-lov­ing coun­tries in the world, could do with that con­cept.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000+ His­toric Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed Books Dig­i­tized & Put Online by the Smith­son­ian: From the Edo & Meji Eras (1600–1912)

Down­load Clas­sic Japan­ese Wave and Rip­ple Designs: A Go-to Guide for Japan­ese Artists from 1903

Enter a Dig­i­tal Archive of 213,000+ Beau­ti­ful Japan­ese Wood­block Prints

What Hap­pens When a Japan­ese Wood­block Artist Depicts Life in Lon­don in 1866, Despite Nev­er Hav­ing Set Foot There

A Firework’s Point of View

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Pippa Ward says:

    Hi … I’ve fol­lowed these instruc­tions to down­load the fire­work cat­a­logues. I can down­load the front cov­er but am unable to find any more pic­tures. I’d be grate­ful for your help. Many thanks.

  • Pippa Ward says:

    Hi … I’m so sor­ry … the oth­er pic­tures have now down­loaded. I did­n’t give them time and apol­o­gise! Thank you for direct­ing me to these beau­ti­ful images!

  • Dan Cohen says:

    Won­der­ful Fan­tas­tic Dis­plays !!

  • Lillian Mayor says:

    So pret­ty and sat­is­fy­ing!
    Ha, I once ordered dark choco­late Kit-Kats from Japan.

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