Traditional sparklers made of straw
“Preserving Tradition with Innovative Ideas”
Senko-hanabi / Tsutsui Tokimasa gangu hanabi seizojo
In Japan, there is a custom to enjoy handheld fireworks at home in the summer. The most well-known handheld fireworks are sparklers. Sparklers are said to have a history of about 400 years. Tsutsui Tokimasa gangu hanabiseizojo, located in Miyama City, Fukuoka Prefecture, produces two types of sparklers made of straw and Japanese paper. We interviewed Ryota Tsutsui, the third generation owner.
Ryota Tsutsui Born in Fukuoka in 1973. He is the third generation of the "Tsutsui Tokimasa gangu hanabi seizojo". After working as a company employee, engaged in the family business of fireworks manufacturing. Started manufacturing sparklers. In addition to planning events for the handmade experience of sparklers, he also produces a café and lodging facilities.
Sparklers in Eastern and Western Japan
It is said that sparklers were originally made by attaching gunpowder to the end of a straw stick and setting it on fire in an incense burner.
―What is the attraction of sparklers?
The attraction of sparklers is that they produce mysterious sparks. Depending on the wind, humidity, and the way they are held, they produce unpredictable sparks. The attraction is that we can’t tell until we light it.
―Do you make two types of sparklers?
In the past, sparklers were shaped differently in the eastern and western parts of Japan. Sparklers made of straw were popular mainly in the Kansai(western) region, where rice cultivation was flourishing and straw was abundant. In the Kanto(eastern) region, where paper-making was flourishing, sparklers with gunpowder wrapped in Japanese paper became the mainstream, and it is said that these sparklers spread nationwide.
―What are the raw materials used?
Pine smoke made by tanning the root of a pine tree is the main raw material, to which nitre and sulfur are added to make gunpowder. The ratio of the ingredients is finely adjusted because the combination of the ingredients changes the way sparks are produced. The blended gunpowder is left to rest for about one year. Unlike other fireworks, sparklers have the ability to regulate humidity, so if stored properly, they produce beautiful sparks even after a long period of time.
Carrying on the tradition of sparkling fireworks
As the number of cheap foreign-made fireworks has increased, the number of domestically-made sparklers has decreased.
―Could you tell us about your factory?
My grandfather founded the company in 1929 and started manufacturing small fireworks. There used to be six fireworks shops in the same area that made both skyrockets and small fireworks, but now we are the only one.
―How did you come to make sparklers?
In the past, sparklers were made all over Japan, but their production almost ceased for a while, and now four companies, including our company, are making paper sparklers. We are the only company in Japan that makes straw sparklers.
My uncle’s company in Yame City, Fukuoka Prefecture, was the last one to make sparklers domestically at the time, and when his company went out of business, he recommended that I should learn the technique, so I did. I have been pursuing a better spark, so I reviewed the raw materials and the amount of gunpowder, and made it from scratch myself.
―I heard that straw sparklers are made in winter.
We manufacture by taking advantage of winter weather with low temperature and humidity. Putting gunpowder on straw is done only in winter, on sunny days in February and March.
―Why did you start making straw for raw materials?
It has become difficult to obtain raw materials, so we decided to start with straw production. Rice production is outsourced to farmers. We dry and store the straw in a long state, pull it out one by one, and use only the core.
Never-ending fascination with fireworks
In addition to sparklers, Tsutsui Tokimasa Gangu Hanabi seizojo also produces a variety of small fireworks.
―What do you find interesting about making fireworks?
Mixing gunpowder is a chemical process, and balance is important for clean combustion. When a beautiful color is produced, I feel that the mixture was successful, but I also want to experiment to see if I can make it even better.
―The design and packaging are also impressive.
To get people to pick up a product, the way it is presented is also important. We studied design. We got acquainted with reliable designers and developed unique products, such as those with motifs of whales and of Mt.Fuji.
―What has made you happy since you have been making fireworks?
I am happy when a product sells well. When I participated in a gift exhibition for the first time, I got a response from stores that had never handled fireworks before, such as major apparel companies and department stores in Ginza, which gave me a good feeling about the response.
―This gallery is located next to the manufactory.
We wanted to sell fireworks directly to customers. I think it is exciting just to come to the fireworks factory, but I wanted to be able to select and buy fireworks one by one there.
Continue to create with a sense of mission
Mr. Tsutsui works not only making fireworks, but also producing raw materials, planning events, and producing an inn and cafe.
―How do you think about tradition?
To keep something that has been around for a long time from dying out, we have to be innovative. sparklers, with their 400-year history, are like the heart of the Japanese people. In order to preserve them, we need to make efforts to continue them, rather than just making them as they were in the past. I believe that we must work on it from securing raw materials and leave it to future generations.
―For the Future
The number of places where people can play with fireworks is decreasing. Therefore, we would like to hold exhibitions where people can pick up fireworks and provide places where they can play with fireworks. I believe that getting children in touch with fireworks and letting them know how fun they are is what we, as makers, need to do in the future.
Depopulation is increasing in the region, and the number of vacant houses is increasing. So we have created an inn and a café by utilizing vacant houses. We have prepared sparklers so that people can enjoy the fireworks and heal their minds and bodies. Since we have been making fireworks here, it is important for us to interact with everyone in the community. I have come to believe that connections between people are important in people’s lives.
※The information is current as of February 2022.
I learned for the first time that sparklers were shaped differently in the east and west of Japan. Straw sparklers are now only made here. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of sparks they produce.
Established in 1929, the company manufactures sparklers. Inheriting the techniques of the sparkler factory in Yame City, Fukuoka Prefecture, the company continues to produce sparklers in each style of Japan's East and West.