Chõchin - symbol of celebration.
Paper lanterns (chõchin) are still a very common sight across Japan and they have long been a part of the picturesque image of Japan. An alluring feature of Japanese life, they can be seen hung in long rows in Shintõ shrines and Buddhist temples, or singularly as signs and advertisements outside traditional eateries and restaurants.
While both bronze and stone lanterns had been in use since the Nara period (712 - 720), surprisingly the first paper lanterns didn’t appear in Japan until around 1570. These weren’t folding lanterns but rigid boxes or cylinders of bamboo framework which were papered over with mulberry paper, with a carrying handle at the top and a candle on a baseboard within.
The first types of folding paper lantern to make their way to Japan were the kago chõchin or box lantern. Consisting of a plain cylindrical frame with a circular wooden cap and base board, these are today the classical style of Japanese lantern recognised the world over. These appeared in Japan around 1590 and came to be commonly used by road travellers. During the Edo period (1600 - 1868) paper lanterns came into general use and a variety of artistic designs developed.
The folding box lantern quickly evolved beyond the basic types that had originated in China. The original types had a top and bottom made from the twisted branches of the wisteria vine (wisteria floribunda) and were susceptible to breaking. Later on the the ends of the lanterns were made of thin plates of wood from the Japanese little leaf box (buxus mycrophylla) which were often lacquered black and fitted at the top with a folding handle. It became a favourite type of lantern used in the Edo period for welcoming and bidding farewell to patrons in the Yoshiwara red light district. These lanterns used in the red light district had paper that was red in colour, as opposed to the common natural light white colour of the plain paper. It is these red coloured paper lanterns that one often encounters today all over Japan, no longer only associated with the red light district.
A thinner, more elongated and robust version of the box lantern called an Odawara chõchin came into use for travelling. Another travelling lantern, the bura chõchin, was roundish in shape mimicking the shape of traditional tea containers. These were carried hung from the end of a short brass rod. Samurai would developed methods of using the brass handle as a naeshi (a truncheon like weapon used to paralyse or weaken) in self-defence, and several martial schools developed around the use of the bura chõchin as a weapon. The handle was between 20 to 30 cm and sometimes had a ring at the end to which was attached a cord so that the lantern could not be easily dropped. In self-defence use the lantern would be thrust into an attacker and extinguished while the handle was used to paralyse and weaken.
Another type of folding hand-held paper lantern that was developed by samurai in the Kantõ region was the yumihari chõchin, named after its bow-shaped bamboo handle fitted parallel to the lantern. These were used by samurai up until the mid-Edo period when they were adopted by firemen. They were particularly favoured by samurai carrying out covert missions. The handle could also be used in self-defence with several schools specialising in its use. Edo-period firemen would often adapt the handle so that it was made from metal with a small hook attached to it. This was a tobiguchi or kite’s beak handle that could be used as a fire hook. Used during fires it could be employed to drag objects out of a fire or pull down parts of a burning building. The curved handle kept the lantern itself more stable when the owner was walking around so that the candle was not extinguished easily. These lanterns are still made today by dedicated families in mountainous regions carrying on the tradition.
Another type of lantern that has remained popular today is the hõzuki chõchin or ground-cherry lantern. This small round lantern has long been popular for carrying in lantern parades during Shintõ festivals. They are traditionally painted in even stripes of red and white, the colours of celebration and often have the crest of the Shintõ shrine painted on them.
Fixed hanging lanterns have also been made in various shapes and sizes. Most these days across Japan are used for advertising establishments and even local companies. This is generally termed a takahari chõchin (stretched tall lantern) and is attached to a long bamboo pole with the top and bottom of the lantern stretched and tied to two bamboo crosspieces. These used to only be displayed outside Buddhist temples and tea houses but they can be seen outside almost any building these days. Especially famous are the huge paper lanterns at major Buddhist temples such as the the one at the Sensõji in Asakusa, Tõkyõ. Lanterns are usually decorated with family crests or the insignia of a company and sometimes accompanied by appropriate kanji.
Two types of globe-shaped lantern, tsuri chõchin, are popular for lighting the inner sanctum of Buddhist temples and Shintõ shrines these days, often in long rows and especially during special festivals. Less common is the use of paper lanterns in personal residences, but during festivals such as during o-bon they are sometimes seen. Onsen and some older houses in older farming communities will sometimes have a wooden rack just inside the entrance fitted with several square paper lanterns, usually decorated with the family crest.
The paper lantern has become a readily recognisable part of Japanese life that has been elevated to a symbol of celebration and festival. With the close of every festival across Japan, as dusk approaches, there is the lighting of the lanterns. During the Odawara chõchin festival 3,000 hand-made paper chõchin are displayed around the outer moat of Odawara castle. Suspended by specially constructed frames the chõchin are beautiful at night when they are lit up, giving the area a romantic atmosphere. They are hand-made and painted by local artisans and school children. For centuries the paper lantern was a practical form of lighting, today the paper lantern has become a symbol of celebration.