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History of Traditional Japanese Lanterns

Traditional Japanese lanterns actually originated from Chinese lighting technologies during the ancient times. Because of Chinese influences during the 6th century, Japan’s first lanterns back then were all mainly based from Chinese innovations.

However, it wasn’t long before the Japanese adapted and was able to make traditional lanterns uniquely different and distinguishable from others.

Evolution of lanterns

  • First Japanese lantern: the ishidouru

While it may not seem to be of Japanese origin, the first lantern ever created that traces back to Japanese history is a Chinese lantern made of stone. They were introduced in Japan as a way of honoring Buddha. Soon after, lanterns have become a common lighting fixture not only in temples, but also gardens and homes. In the olden times, when you have a lantern in your house, you were already considered wealthy.

Due to its sudden growth and popularity over the years, Japanese lanterns rapidly grow and become more distinct and different from its Chinese counterparts.

  • Tsuridourou: traditional hanging lantern

A tsuridourou is a variation of the ishidouru. Instead of it being attached to the land, a tsuridourou is free hanging. Originally, these lanterns were made out of copper with around four to six sides. They were first made out of copper, bronze or iron to create protection from the rain as they are most commonly placed outside to illuminate corridors. These tsuridourous are usually embellished or designed to showcase the Japanese kamon or crest.

Nowadays, however, a tsuridourou is created out of paper materials, glue and bamboo. They are used in one of Japan’s oldest traditions known as the” toro nagashi” where participants basically place paper lanterns down on a river to allow them to go with the flow of the river on the last evening of the Bon Festival. This tradition has existed in Japan for years. This tradition is held on the belief that through these floating lanterns, spirits are provided with guidance and direction as they move out of the physical world to journey into the spiritual.

  • Chochin paper lanterns

Historical facts state that the origin of chochin, or paper lanterns, date back to almost 500 years ago. At the time, they were first used to celebrate festivals of the Chinese. But nowadays they have formed part of Japanese culture and are still currently being used in beautiful festivals in Japan such as the Dai-Chochin Matsuri or the Suwa Shrine Lantern Festival commonly celebrated during the 26th and 27th of August to ward away the evil spirits of the sea.

Chochins are one of the most common lanterns in Japan as they were constructed and used in not only festivals, but also restaurants for over 300 years. Chochins have a distinguishable feature, when it comes to shape and size. Big Chochins around 5 meters or more in diameter are used in big special events in China, while smaller ones are used in regular occasions. They have a distinct cylindrical or round shape than other traditional Japanese lanterns.

  • Andon: Modern Japanese Lanterns

Japanese lanterns continue to evolve as the years go by. Traditional lanterns are not given a more modern vibe through the introduction of andons which are now commonly used to decorate hotels, restaurants, gardens and other similar places. They are uniquely distinguished from typical Japanese lanterns as they are made in the shape of a tetrahedron and commonly found on the ground.

While lanterns have never truly originated in Japan, it is nice to see that something so influential can flourish, and evolve to adapt to the culture it was introduced to. Lanterns will forever stem from the Chinese, but traditional Japanese lanterns are uniquely, symbolically, and deeply rooted in Japanese customs and traditions alone.