Lesson Unit: Celebrating Tanabata (The Star Festival)

Unit Title: Celebrating Tanabata (The Star Festival)

By Tara McGowan

Language Arts/ Social Studies/Visual Arts (K-8)

Unit goals/ Standards:

CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on other’s ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively

CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally

CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words

Lesson Plan One: Calligraphy and Tanzaku making  (Grades K-8)

·         One day (40-50 minutes)

Lesson Plan Two:  Decorating bamboo branches (Grades K-8)

·         One day (40-50 minutes)

Essential questions:

1)      What purposes and beliefs go into the creation of decorations for Tanabata?

2)      The story of Tanabata is about finding the right balance between pleasure and discipline. How do students find and maintain that balance? Is that balance the same for every person and for every culture?

3)      Tanabata celebrates the discipline required to excel at any skill or art form. In what ways can students develop the self-discipline required to improve their learning?

Lesson Plan One: Calligraphy and Tanzaku making  (Grades K-8)

Day 1: (45-50 minutes)

Step one: Read kamishibai: “The Story of Tanabata” (Tanabata monogatari)

Cultural background and synopsis:

This kamishibai version of the Tanabata story is based on the Chinese legend where the Emperor of the Heavens arranges the marriage of the cowherd Hikoboshi (the star Altair) and the weaver maiden Orihimé (the star Vega). It is beautifully illustrated with a technique called kirigami (cut paper) that is reminiscent of Chinese shadow theater. The papers are dyed to look like cloth, which is appropriate because of the important role that both paper and cloth play in the Tanabata festival. Japanese paper is made from mulberry, and mulberry is also the plant silk worms eat to produce silk thread.


·         Brushes and ink (if possible, Japanese-style bamboo brushes and sumi ink)

·         Writing samples in Chinese characters or the two syllabaries (hiragana, katakana)

·         Paper to practice writing

·         Tanzaku—specially cut long paper for writing wishes in five colors (see below)

·         Pens for writing wishes in English (if possible, calligraphy pens and instructions would allow students to practice western-style calligraphy)

·         String for hanging the tanzaku

Step two: Making tanzaku

Brainstorm with students about what kinds of wishes or dreams they have to improve on their skills in academics and various art forms. Depending on the students’ writing abilities, they can make a list or be encouraged to write an essay.

Students can then practice writing their wishes in Japanese brush calligraphy or western-style calligraphy and penmanship. Once they come up with some writing they are pleased with, they can cut it out and glue it to the long strips of colored paper, or tanzaku.

Step three: Students should prepare their tanzaku wishes so they can be hung on the bamboo tree or branches by either using a hole punch to make a hole on one end and tie string to it or staple the string to one end so that there is a loop from which it can be hung.

Lesson Plan Two: Decorating bamboo branches

Day 2: (45-50 minutes)

·         Instructions for making nets and other origami objects relating to the stars or the sea (see Origami Club website below for downloadable instructions)

·         Colored construction paper for making various kinds of paper chains

·         Origami paper in all sizes and colors

·         Thread, string or yarn, for hanging all the decorations

·         A good-sized bamboo tree or branch that can be made to stand straight with sand in a bucket, like a Christmas tree

Step one: Make decorations of all kinds

In addition to tanzaku, school children in Japan come up with all manner of paper decorations, some of which are based on traditional designs associated with the Tanabata story.

·         Net decorations—to symbolize the wish for a good catch for fisherman at sea and also the River of Heaven (or Milkyway) that Orihimé and Hikoboshi have to cross.

·         Stars of all kinds, either folded or cut out of glittering paper

·         The chain of a thousand cranes—to symbolize long life.

·         Paper dolls wearing kimono or paper kimono—to symbolize improvements in sewing and weaving. These would have also been used to transfer impurities from people to the dolls (see the Doll’s Festival).

·         Paper dolls representing the Weaver Maiden and the Cowherd (see example above)

·         Paper purses—symbolizing the acquisition of wealth.

·         Origami boats and other folded objects relating to the sea or the stars

·         Students should be encouraged to let their imaginations take over, so it is good to have extra bright colored origami paper on hand for their original creations.

There are endless possibilities for creating colorful decorations for Tanabata. The origami club website below offers free, downloadable instructions for many traditional designs.


Step three: Decorate bamboo branches and learn the Tanabata song

For an easy to sing along version:



For a raucous version, sung by very little children in Japan, with a view of street decorations for the festival:


Decorating trees is a festive part of many celebrations the world over. Older students can take charge of this activity by attaching their own strings to their decorations and placing them on the branches. Younger students may need some assistance.

Depending on how much time parents and teachers have to give to this occasion, there are many ways to extend this festival into a larger event. In Japan, schools will often do dramatizations of the Tanabata story. The festival also offers an opportunity for students to dress up, possibly in Japanese yukata (summer cotton kimono), and have a party with star-themed foods and deserts. Cookies, cakes, or sandwiches in the shape of stars would be appropriate. In Japan, it is popular to make sōmen, a thin white noodle similar to the threads used in weaving and also likened to the “River of Heaven.” The noodles are usually decorated with vegetables (sliced okra and carrots) and other condiments cut in the shapes of stars.

Lesson Outcomes:

At the end of this two-day lesson plan, students will be able to explain the central idea behind Tanabata and describe through images and words how they will strive to improve in various skills and arts through hard work and discipline.

Essential Skills:

Cooperative learning, group discourse, critical thinking.


Well-known celebrations of Tanabata throughout Japan:

Nebuta-matsuri in the city of Aomori—this began as a purification ritual involving the transfer of impurities to dolls and then having them float away in the water, but it has expanded into a spectacular parade of gorgeously decorated floats that attract large numbers of tourists to the city.

Tanabata-matsuri in the city of Sendai—Businesses around the city compete to make the most spectacular fukidashi streamers and Tanabata decorations.

Tanabata dolls in the city of Matsumoto—Dolls wearing children’s kimono are hung from the eves of the houses to ward off sickness and harm to members of the family.

Seidaimyōjinreisai in Kyoto—known for the god of kemari (a socker-like game that was popular among the aristocracy) and girls dressed in 17th century costume dance around the decorated bamboo for Tanabata.


Resources sited:

The Story of Tanabata (Tanabata monogatari) kamishibai cards, Author: Shin Kitada
ILLUSTRATOR: Yukihiko Mitani (Tokyo: Doshinsha)

Kamishibai cards may be purchased through Kamishibai for Kids: kamishi@kamishibai.com

Website: http://www.kamishibai.com/

Other useful resources:

Janie Jaehyun Park, The Love of Two Stars: A Korean Legend (Groundwood Books, 2005)

William Jay Rathbun, ed., Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles (Seattle Museum of Art, 1993)


Betty Reynolds, Japanese Celebrations: Cherry Blossoms, Lanterns and Stars! (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2006)

Florence Sakade & Yoshisuke Kurosaki, Japanese children’s favorite stories (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1959)

Gail R. Benjamin, Japanese Lessons: A Year in a Japanese School Through the Eyes of an American Anthropologist and Her Children (NYU Press, 1998).

Rebecca Otowa, My Awesome Japan Adventure: A Diary about the Best 4 Months Ever! (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2013).

Setsu Broderick and Willamarie Moore, Japanese Traditions—Rice Cakes, Cherry Blossoms and Matsuri: A Year of Seasonal Japanese Festivities (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2010)

Willamarie Moore and Kazumi Wilds, All About Japan: Stories, Songs, Crafts and More (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2011)


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