Fireworks displays are back this summer after COVID19 hiatus

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Pyrotechnics designer Hiroyuki Hirose is gearing up for the Sumida River Fireworks Festival in Tokyo, during which his company will shoot off 9,500 fireworks.

The July 29 display is returning after a three-year hiatus. Like many public events it fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The display will draw on the wizardry of Hirose’s employer, Marutamaya Ogatsu Fireworks Co., which is headquartered in Tokyo. Hirose is director of the company’s fireworks assembly plant in Yamanashi Prefecture.

If spectators at this year’s event feel the display has a particular punch, that’s intentional.

“We will be setting off fireworks to make up for our regret that we couldn’t have productions over the past three years,” said Hirose, 49.


Born and raised in Yamanashi Prefecture, Hirose decided to become a fireworks artist after helping out at a pyrotechnics show.

He recalls seeing fireworks light up the night sky as they detonated with thunderous reports. Moreover, the young Hirose appreciated the cheers and applause from spectators.

When Hirose graduated from high school, he started working at Marutamaya Ogatsu Fireworks. He learned how they are made and how to produce different colors. 

Even outside the office, Hirose would look at a colored object and figure out the mix he would use to create that hue.

He also would sketch flowers to imagine fireworks blooming.

When Hirose could not answer the questions he set himself, he asked his supervisor for advice.

Pyrotechnicians mix chemicals and gunpowder in a rotary pot. It takes days to prepare a formula that will result in the starburst seen by spectators.

The treated gunpowder is laid inside two half spheres that will be combined to form a firework. The two halves are fitted together around a central charge of gunpowder that will detonate the ensemble.

Only one firework can be made in a day depending on its size.

At Hirose’s factory, the work is done by five craftsmen.

Safety is paramount. Hirose said he pays extra attention to the handling of gunpowder and warns his junior artisans about its dangers.

“Our task is more nerve-wracking and hard than pleasurable,” he said. “But we find it very rewarding since fireworks can make people happy.”

Marutamaya Ogatsu Fireworks won an award at the Sumida River Fireworks Festival in 2019, in which 20,000 fireworks were used. The display drew 959,000 spectators.

At that event the company drew on an Olympics theme, as the Tokyo Olympics were planned to be held the following year.

Then COVID-19 struck. The Summer Games were postponed and subsequent Sumida River fireworks displays were called off.

The company’s Yamanashi plant suspended operations. Its losses were covered by the government’s compensation program, but it halted activities such as the procurement of gunpowder.

It managed to shift the fireworks it held in stock for displays that took place despite pandemic-related restrictions, but sales for fiscal 2020 were down 70 percent from the previous year.

“Fireworks were no longer in demand at a time when people were obsessed with life-or-death affairs,” said Kohei Ogatsu, 41, president of Marutamaya Ogatsu Fireworks. “At times I would be stricken by anxiety.”

As for Hirose, he found it unrealistic to commute to his factory, let alone travel out of Yamanashi Prefecture.

He was allowed to show up at his office twice a week following the lifting of the state of emergency in May. However, the only work available was clerical duties such as sorting daily reports.

He tried to think of ways to keep up demand. He devised novel display images, including fireworks that would look like surgical masks when they detonated. The idea was rejected.

“I just agonized over what to do,” Hirose said. “I could not figure out anything to do, given that I had committed myself exclusively to making fireworks.”

At a loose end, he began helping his parents with farm work at the family home 15 minutes by car from his own residence.

He labored outdoors in the sweltering summer heat. But he felt a sense of impotence at being unable to make fireworks during what is usually the busiest time of the year for pyrotechnicians.

For three years the situation stayed the same. But then Hirose heard the news he had been waiting for. He received a call from Ogatsu, who told Hirose: “The Sumida display will likely be held this year.”

Hirose was speechless. “All I could say was, ‘I am so delighted,’” he said.

This year, Hirose plans to model the fireworks of a bygone age, the Edo Period (1603-1867). He plans to re-create the fireworks launched at the predecessor of the Sumida River Fireworks Festival.

It is thought that the display was first held in memory of the victims of famine and disease that characterized the era. The fireworks were both a tribute to the dead and a ritual to drive away infectious disease.

“I have heard that fireworks of the time were not as spectacular as they are today,” Hirose said. “I want to go back to my original purpose, too, in the hopes of wowing visitors with fireworks that are more than just flashy.”


The Sumida River Fireworks Festival takes place July 29 in Tokyo.

The Nagaoka fireworks show is scheduled Aug. 2 and 3 in Niigata Prefecture. 

The Naniwa Yodogawa Fireworks Festival is on Aug. 5 in Osaka Prefecture.

Visitors to Kagawa Prefecture can view the Sakaide Ohashi waterfront fireworks display on Aug. 11.

Also planned this year are the Kanmon Kaikyo display on Aug. 13 in Yamaguchi and Fukuoka prefectures, the Ashidagawa fireworks on Aug. 15 in Hiroshima Prefecture and the Lake Suwako festival on Aug. 15 in Nagano Prefecture.

People in Akita Prefecture can watch the national Omagari fireworks contest on Aug. 26.

The Tsuchiura All-Japan Fireworks Competition will take place on Nov. 4 in Ibaraki Prefecture.