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Pyrotechnician behind surprise firework show in Japan finds new ways to carry on tradition

Isao Murase, a pyrotechnician and fourth-generation chief of fireworks company Murase Enka, is seen at the company in the central Japan city of Gifu on June 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Shinji Yokota)

GIFU -- Japanese pyrotechnician Isao Murase, who with others in his highly specialized profession mounted surprise fireworks displays across the country on June 1 amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, had another future in mind for himself. Now, however, he is striving to both develop new skills and preserve Japan's firework traditions.

Regular firework shows throughout Japan have been cancelled due to the viral outbreak, and the project was organized as a surprise event to prevent crowds of spectators from gathering. Around 160 fireworks businesses from the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido to the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa agreed to participate in this event to brighten the mood amid the pandemic, sending fireworks into the sky all on the same night across the archipelago.

Isao Murase, born in the central Japan city of Gifu in 1985, is the fourth-generation head of fireworks company Murase Enka, founded in 1923. The company is in charge of the fireworks to mark the beginning of the local traditional cormorant fishing on the Nagara River. Murase, who is also father of two children, initially had no intention of succeeding the business. However, during his university years, just when he was thinking of getting a job at a "normal company," his now 72-year-old father Mitsumasa, the third-generation company owner, told him, "You don't need to take over the business. It's dangerous work." This had the opposite effect, igniting a sense of duty in Murase to protect fireworks culture.

"If the shows are not unique and the result of highly skilled work, firework won't be able to last as a business," said Murase, who does not place much value in efficient manufacturing. Rather, he has been in search of new skills while also preserving tradition.

Murase visited fireworks businesses across Japan to learn ways to make fireworks light up in a neater circle and to make the colors more vivid. He was entrusted with the company 10 years ago, and has "finally been able to get a grasp of the technical know-how." Then came the outbreak, during which Murase discussed with colleagues if there was anything they could do as pyrotechnicians to help tackle the crisis. They arrived at the idea to hold surprise fireworks shows -- an endeavor that even caught the eye of foreign media outlets including a U.S. newspaper.

Although the surprise fireworks displays have ended, Murase has no time to spare. He has decided to hold an unprecedented show in August in Hyogo Prefecture, western Japan, incorporating preventative measures against infection -- a show that he hopes proves to be "the best in the world."

"We'd like to show that firework shows can take place as long as proper measures are taken," he said.

(Japanese original by Shinji Yokota, Gifu Bureau)

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