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The Japanese Art of Illumination

Arts of Asia - January/February 1993 issue

Text by Timothy Mertel
Photographs by Nancy Hines,
courtesy of Honeychurch Antiques

Woodblock print by Taiso Yoshitoshi, from the Fuzoku Sanjuniso (Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners) of a 
woman lighting a wick in a kaku-andon oil dish. 1888

THE JAPANESE mingei (folk art) tradition is embodied in the objects the Japanese used to illuminate their dwellings, gardens and public spaces. The lights are simple, elegant and provide an important function. Perhaps it is best to use the term shibui, which describes an aesthetic sensibility that avoids the ostentatious and yet conveys a feeling of refinement. Lighting in the West is grand with enormous chandeliers that turn night into day, while in Japan the andon (paper covered lamp stand) is meant to accompany the night and enjoy the night for what it is. This concept of illumination is all important in understanding Japanese lanterns and candlesticks. These objects create the necessary minimum of light required to function in the darkness of the night, but do not alter the ambience the night has to offer.


Kaku-andon (raised square frame papered lantern). Cryptomeria frame, red lacquer, paper, brass oil dish, pitcher and saucer. Height 311/2 ins, circa 1860 Yagakuyo-andon (study lantern). Cryptomeria frame, black lacquer, paper and glass. Height 281/4 ins, circa 1860

In this brief overview of Japanese lighting in the Edo period (1615-1868), we will look at actual lighting devices and those lanterns recorded in Japanese ukiyo-e prints. A unique attribute of life in the urban Edo period was the advent of night-life. Lanterns allowed this new aspect of the Japanese culture to develop. The commercialised amusements beyond the traditional seasonal festivals became available to commoner and samurai alike. The kabuki theatre developed into a prominent indoor night-time form of entertainment. Ukiyo-e artists owe the popularity of their work to the kabuki theatre. The woodblock print artists depicted every aspect of this phenomenon for public consumption. The other popular subject for the artisans was the complementary night-life pastime of the pleasure quarters and brothels. These places were a feature of all major Japanese towns. The ukiyo-e artists recorded the thriving life around them and put on record the night-life illuminated by the wonderful objects of light.

Unusual tetrahedron shaped lantern. Bird form handle, cryptomeria, paper, red and black lacquer. Height 25 ins. Circa 1860 Two maru-andon (cylindrical paper framed lanterns). Cryptomeria, paper and iron. Height 29 ins. (left) and 33 ins. Circa 1860

Woodblock print by Kyoko
Takane of a young woman
adjusting her hairpin in
front of a tangerine shaped

The first lighting device was brought to Japan along with Buddhism in 538. In India, where Buddhism originated, lamps were used to light priests' living quarters. These lamps were fuelled by vegetable oil and were made of a simple dish elevated by a tripod base of three sticks tied together. The temples and shrines became illuminated, creating the symbolic replication of the Buddhist Pure Land within their structures. They used gold leaf in paintings and images, creating a magical reflective quality.

The oldest existing lantern in Japan is from the Nara period (710-793). It is made of gilt bronze, octagonal in form and is in front of the building enshrining the great image of Buddha at Todaiji in Nara. This lantern is considered the model for most exterior lanterns. It is comprised of a pedestal base, column support, lamp support, multi-sided light chamber, roof and flaming jewel finial.

The original purpose of exterior lanterns was to illuminate the front of Buddhist temples. It was not until the Momoyama period (1573-1615) and the introduction of the tea ceremony that stone lanterns were used in gardens. Adaptations of the Buddhist design still exist in garden lanterns. Within the realm of exterior stone lanterns there is a variety of types: tachi doro (standing lanterns), ikekomi doro (planted lanterns), ashitsuki doro (legged lanterns), to doro (stupa lanterns) and oki doro (movable lanterns).

Woodblock print by Taiso Yoshitoshi, from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon,
of Minamoto Yoshitsune composing a poem near a plum shaped lantern.

There are three groups of interior lighting devices in Japan: those set on the floor, those hung from the ceiling and those held in the hand. All stationary lighting devices that feature an oil dish set with a wick are called todai (lamp stands). These lamps consist basically of a base (the chrysanthemum form being the most popular), a shaft to elevate the source of light and an oil dish.

There are three groups of interior lighting devices in Japan: those set on the floor, those hung from the ceiling and those held in the hand. All stationary lighting devices that feature an oil dish set with a wick are called todai (lamp stands). These lamps consist basically of a base (the chrysanthemum form being the most popular), a shaft to elevate the source of light and an oil dish.

The portable paper framed lanterns are called andon. They are noted for the elegance and simplicity of the angular design. The wood framed light chamber conceals an oil dish. The paper diffuses the light -33 created within to soften the harshness of the bare flame. It is believed that the advent of the shoji (papered sliding doors) in Japanese interiors was an epochal event in the development of Japanese lighting. Shoji provided the concept of diffusing a light source. In the daytime, these doors provided a shield against the harsh rays of sunshine, but still permitted adequate light into the interior. The same principle is applied with andon. They shield the bright flame providing the ethereal lighting effect desired in Japanese interiors.

Prior to the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japanese interiors were very sparse. In an uncluttered space, the design of the lantern was very important, and there are many different andon designs. All have bold, simple lines, contrasting the dark frame with the brightness of the illuminated paper. The three most notable forms of andon are the kaku-andon (raised square frame papered lantern), the maru-andon (cylindrical frame papered lantern) and the ariake-andon (daybreak lantern).

English illustration showing Japanese sellers of lamps, circa 1850

The kaku-andon is a floor standing lantern in which the light chamber is suspended on two thin legs. This elevated design casts the unshielded light upward and downward. The base would often hold an aburazara (oil plate) to catch the oil that dripped from the suspended lamp. The flame would be reached by sliding the whole chamber off the stand, or perhaps just one side would slide up off the frame. Other variations exist with hinged doors and tilting chambers.

An unusual adaptation of the andon is the shokenandon or yagakuyo-andon (book or study lantern) This lamp is similar to the kaku-andon except for the lower front corner, which is cut away and replaced with a pane of glass or lens. This design, from the Gensuke Ohsumi shop in Tokyo, allows the light to burn brightly in a concentrated area in front of the lamp. This light was considered the best for reading at night.

There are many variations of square framed lanterns. Tetrahedral, tangerine and plum forms are just a few. It is believed that square andon were popular with samurai and the people of Edo, while round forms were greatly appreciated by the nobility and the people of Osaka.

The maru-andon is an elegant classic form of a simple cylinder. The design is of a framed cylinder papered only half-way, and an adjustable cylinder frame fits over the fixed frame, again only half papered. This design is a complete white cylinder source of light when closed and allows for adjustment and access to the flame by rotating the exterior frame. The broad sheets of paper provide a long mass of illumination.

A pair of gold lacquered wood shokudai (candle stands). Height 191/2 ins, circa 1800 A group of three okitanni shokudai (folding candle stands) crafted of bronze Tallest height 281/2 ins circa 1880

The ariake-andon is the most visually interesting form. It is a small portable night-light, square in form shielded by a lacquered wooden cover into which decorative openings were cut. The openings often were circular or crescent forms replicating the shapes of the moon. Through these cutouts the decorative framework of the lantern can he seen adding a second level of decoration. The cover serves a dual purpose of dimming the lantern's light and serving as a pedestal base when the cover is removed. Some examples even have rails on the cover for the lantern to slide into, temporarily affixing it to the cover. The term ariakeandon, directly translated, means dawn lantern. This may be a reference to removal of the cover creating a brighter light. It has also been suggested the lamp was meant to burn until dawn.

Woodblock print by Taiso Yoshitoshi
from the series Fuzoku Sanjuniso of
a waitress trimming the wick of a
candle within a chochin, 1888
A close relative to the previously mentioned todai (lamp stand) is shokudai (candle stand). The shokudai design also has a broad base and slender shaft with a dish form at the top. The major difference is the more than one inch long pricket in the centre of the dish. Japanese candles are often formed with a taper. They are made with a mixture of sumac wax and contain a narrow paper cone wick which is coated with vegetable oil. The bottom is hollowed to fit onto the sharp spur. At the top of the candle (the wide end) the wick projects to a firm hard point. When a candle has burned low, it is removed from the candlestick and placed on the end of the new candle. With this simple adjustment, the whole candle is utilised in combustion. The disadvantage of the paper wick is that it does not burn completely at times and leaves an ash buildup that requires trimming to keep the flame from dimming. Most candle stands were provided with ash containers and wick scissors which resemble pincers.

Woodblock print by Toshishige
of a man scolding a young lord as
the boy's mother holds a te-shoku
(carrying candle stand)

A very unusual type of candle stand is the okitami shokudai (folding candle stand) designed by the famous mechanical inventor Hisashige Tanaka (1799-1881). He was the founder of the Toshiba Electric Company and is better known as Karakuri Giemon. When he was seventy-six years old he opened a shop in the Ginza area of Tokyo. The shop specialised in his own inventions, some of the more popular being mechanical dolls and clocks with movements of the solar system. He invented this travelling candle stand. It folds by means of tight hinges into a pocket sized wallet and extends upward, to the same proportion as a traditional candle stand, with a unique tripod base. These examples are quite rare.

Woodblock print by Shunkosai Hokuei
depicting a scene from The Yotsu-ya
Ghost Story of Oiwa the lantern ghost

The hanging lantern is basically a variation of the andon design. These lanterns are called tsuri-andon and contain either oil and wick or candles. The most remarkable form is the tsuri-toro, a roofed hanging lantern resembling a miniature shrine. This design was almost exclusively used by temples and shrines to be hung under the eaves. Parishioners would dedicate these lanterns to the temple and often would have an inscription on the underside or roof. The commoners adapted these lanterns, as they did the stone garden lanterns, to illuminate exterior entry-ways and gardens.

Woodblock print by Utagawa
Kuniyoshi from the series
Biography of Loyal Retainers
of a ronin holding a kura-andon
warehouse lantern), 1847

Another type of lantern resembling a shrine is the kake-andon or wall lantern. Instead of hanging from the eaves, this lantern would be attached to a wall. Such lanterns can also resemble the ariake-andon. A popular wall mounted lighting device is the kake-fiku, a wall candle holder. This is simply constructed of a small plank of wood, with an extended dish and candle pricket on the lower portion and a hook on top for hanging. Affluent farming and merchant households would hang these by the dozens.

When a Westerner thinks of a Japanese lantern, the first object that springs to mind is the chochin, a collapsible lantern crafted of bamboo and covered with oiled paper. It is stretched out like an accordion when in use, but collapsed when not in use. Chochin can be hung or carried as a travelling lantern. The shapes vary tremendously from prefecture to prefectture. These lanterns were originally illuminated by candles. Replications can still be seen in Japan, outfitted electrically. Unfortunately, Edo period chochin rarely exist today since the nature of their design is somewhat fragile and does not sustain endured use.

Tsuri-toro (hanging lantern). Bronze
temple form and paper. Height 16 ins,
circa 1800

The chochin was the most abundant form of illumination in the Edo period. It is one of the few inanimate objects which was featured in the famous kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan (The Yotsu-ya Ghost Story) written by Tsuruya Nanboku IV. In this story the husband lyemon murders his wife Oiwa only after unsuccessfully poisoning her, causing her great pain and disfigurement. Iyemon caused her death because he was tired of her. He is ridden with guilt and sees her ghost in the form of a chochin. Oiwa's face appears in a hanging lantern which has caught on fire. Iyemon is haunted by the image. This scene has been immortalised by woodblock print and netsuke artists alike. The story of Oiwa is the ultimate Japanese ghost tale. Her spirit actively torments and haunts her murderer, pursuing him wherever he goes. This tale is founded on a psychological basis, as well as having social reflections. The villain Iyemon changes from tormentor to tormented. In a society which relies heavily upon moral obligation and duty, Iyemon's sense of guilt and torture is just punishment for his actions.


Three hand-carrying maru-andon used
with candles only. Cryptomeria, lacquer
and paper. Height 10 ins, circa 1840


The candle stand easiest to carry is the te-shoku, a simple design consisting of two legs under a wide dish to prevent the candle wax from dripping onto the floor, a ring around the pricket to prevent the candle from falling over, and a third leg extending from the dish that additionally acts as a handle to carry the device. Te-shoku are usually constructed of metal and sometimes are outfitted with a bonbori (paper over framework) shade to prevent the flame from being blown out while carrying. These lamps served as the main way to light one's way down dark corridors to and from sleeping quarters. A hybrid of designs exists in a hand-carrying maru-andon. It is a miniature version of the tall cylindrical lantern, with a short handle attached to the base for carrying, like the te-shoku. This small lantern serves the same purpose as the te-shoku.

There are carrying lanterns for special purposes, such as the kura-andon or warehouse lantern. This iron lamp keeps the candle and flame within a wire mesh cage. This prevents the lantern from catching fire which the paper and wood lanterns easily do. Another unusual lamp is the gantoh or flashlight used by policemen on their night beats. Basically it is a gimbal contraption contained within a bucket shape, having a handle at the base. Whichever way the officer turns the light, the candle and flame remain upright and the light is framed and directed by the round open end of the bucket. One of the most unique carrying lanterns is the tabi-andon, or traveller's lantern concealed in a writing box or smoker's box. This lantern is very small and is only large enough to hold a small candle and provide the minimal light required for performing the task at hand, such as writing a letter or smoking a pipe.

Tabi-andon (traveller's lantern), principally a smoker's hibachi with
small storage drawers and paper lantern. Height 91/4 ins, circa 1840 

There are few venues for seeing the variety of Japanese lanterns outside of Japan. Museums which mount general exhibits of Japanese folk art will undoubtedly include a few andon. There are a few in the United -States within the collections of the Seattle Art Museum and the Peabody Museum of Salem. The majority of Japanese lighting devices in the West are in private collections. In Japan there once was the Kitano Lamp Museum in Kobe which opened eight years ago and closed four years later, selling the entire collection to the Kansai Electric Company in Osaka. Other collections for public viewing are not known. Published examples are in books dealing with Japanese folk arts. The Kitano Lamp Museum did publish a catalogue which is now out of print, and the best Western publication with a variety of examples is Traditional Japanese Furniture by Kazuko Koizurni.

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