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Lanterns, the beauty of shadows

- the beauty of shadows -

Daruma Magazine #5, Winter 1995

by Daruma Publishing
Photos mainly by Oya Takao

Long ago people burnt wood, oil or candles in order to bring light to darkness.

They worried about the dimness of their surroundings and came up with various ideas for convenient lighting tools and beautiful lamps. Why don't you tryout old lighting and so taste the beauty of the shadows which fell in days gone by, as if you had been there?

fig.1 Short lamp stand or tankei with a porcelain mouse on top. 30.5 cm/12 in. high.
Originally a "tankei" was a tea article. The humorous aspect is that a mouse zeroes
in on the stand, as mice are said to like oil.

fig. 2 Iron hanging light, 31 cm/12.2 in. high.

fig. 3 Openwork iron paper-covered oil lamp stand with design of deer and
Japanese maples. 62cm/24.4 in. high.


fig.4 Short lacquered oil-lamp stand
kiri-todai, shorter than ordinary lamp
stands used for iiluminuting nearby
37.5 cm/14.7 in. high.
fig.5 Gold-laquered candlestand
43 cm/16.9 in. high.

fig. 6 Pair of Oribe ware small canle stands. 14.5 cm/5.7 in. high.

fig. 7 Small portable candlesticks made of brass, and round-cornered candlestick made of keyaki.
12 cm/4.7 in. high (on right).


Japanese Life Revealed by Lights

Tsubouchi Fu.iio 

My hobby of collecting lighting equipment

Some ten years ago I was attracted to lamps without realizing it and at almost the same time began to haunt antique shops searching for them.

When I began, 1 had no idea of the appropriate balance between quality and price, so the lights I purchased and the money I laid out are not worth mentioning. However, I was greatly blessed in meeting people with experience in the field who offered me their advice and encouragement; I was given lots of helpful leads which helped enrich my collection.

It is quite troublesome when collectors become maniacs. If an enthusiasm for collecting grows stronger, collectors use up time and money. They may be able to control their desire but they are apt to have a feeling that they suffer from an incurable disease and an oppressive atmosphere surrounds them. In this case a cloud hangs over the collection they have spent a long time gathering; collecting something ends up being only half fun - and half hardship. Besides, the items in my field - andon lamps and candle stands - tend to get rather dirty so a shadow lingers even over my ambition to collect them.

I collect these articles, and think it is better not to show them off to others. Naturally my attitude becomes very passive, taking delight in collecting them quietly and I cannot help feeling a touch of loneliness.

However, editors of books and magazines have picked up the scent of my collection. Since photographers took flattering pictures of the lighting equipment I have collected, I came to think better of my collection; it has its own charm.

This time Hayashi Mitsunori asked me to write an article arousing me out of a light sleep, so my collection will be exposed to the public again. I take out my beloved lights from an attic, dust and light up each one. While helping with the photography, I become aware that I am more than ever devoted to the collection.

Reason for starting collection

I am often asked: "what induced you to begin collecting lamps?" My answer is always vague, because I do not have a clear motive. If forced to explain, I would say that I am the chief priest at a temple, so lighting tapers is part of my daily work.

To light one, we keep a sacred flame flickering at the tip of a wick which is soaked in rapeseed oil for several hours, as required. So we have to clean various kinds of stands to prepare the votive lights and light them. But why did I jump from this daily activity to collecting lighting equipment? Though there are many priests, I have seldom met a priest like myself: I have to admit that my hobby is strange.

I have collected lighting equipment for a long time without my interest flagging. These days deciding which are my favourites is difficult and the prices are high, so the number of lamps I can collect has dropped a lot. But my attachment to them has deepened.

Compared to the time when I was really enthusiastic about collecting them, my appreciation of the tools has heightened. When I was busy looking for them I could not afford the time to really appreciate the collection. The qualities associated with collecting things passionately remind me of a greedy person, so I must have lacked taste. When looking carefully at the lamps, I realize that the light they shed is tasteful and I learn much from it.

Charm of lamps

Lights such as andon lamps, candle stands and oil-lamp stands arre often elegant. When they are lit, they look much better. Though their light is dim, a mysterious beauty suffuses the air. I think that it would be marvellous if we could incorporate the lamps into our own age. I place them in a dark corner, but unfortunately we cannot help feeling that we are in a quite different age when we see them.

This dim light was alive in the old days: as it got dark, each household began to prepare a meal, trusting in the light. The family had dinner, a bath and the pleasures of a happy home before bedtime using little lights.

People in those days felt the fear and inconvenience of a dark night with their own body. So even if it was small, the light was their only trusted and encouraging friend.

Ordinary people soaked one or two wicks in a small amount of oil and made a light not much bigger than a speck in a fire grate. Extending the area of lighted space with a paper cover, as on andon lamps, or by using candles, was a luxury and only those who lived in affluent circumstances were able to purchase these lights.

Magic of moonlight

So we can imagine how happy and heartwarmed ordinary people were on a moonlit night, especially a night with a full moon.

Both moonlight and small lamps from a wick were indispensable to nights in olden days. People's feeling of gratitude to light seems to have been born naturally in their daily longing for it. Their feeling of enjoying the moon was directly connected with that of treasuring small lamps. A feeling of considerateness for others is linked to any lighting equipment.

In addition, it seems to me that lamps convey people's life honestly. I call to mind those who lived by the sweat of their brow and feel human warmth in the lights used by poor families. Moderate beauty is hidden in those made for a frugal way of life. We can guess from the lights used by well-to-do families with their goldlacquered or mother-of-pearl how they competed with each other in showing off their gorgeous lighting. 

The various kinds of lamps for luxuriousness, practicality, enjoyment, silence and festivals reflected life as it is. 

History of lanterns 

The development of lighting is the history of a long conflict between people and darkness. First they made fires, burnmg dead trees and dry grass. Then they adopted other organic combustibles such as grease, fish oil and nut oil to provide light. Soon it became possible to grow and gather sesame and perilla seeds and the age of oil lights was born. 

Cultural exchange with the Asian continent brought Buddhism into Japan and the world of solemn light of tapers, thanks to the custom of letting lamps burn steadily by Buddhist statues. Lights which shine brilliantly in a Buddhist sanctuary like candles, candlestands, hanging lanterns and oil-lamp stands began to be used at this time. 

Inspired by the lights used in Buddhist ceremonies, lighting apparatus spread among the higher classes from the Nara to Heian and Kamakura periods (8th-14th centuries.). From those lamps, we can guess how things were going in the various periods among the priviledged classes who used them. 

The world of lights branched into various groups depending on their usage, purpose and features: the solemn taste of Buddhist lighting, the elegant lights dear to the Heian aristocracy and the substantial lamps of the samurai. 


The lighting equipment varied in form with the fuel used. There were three main kinds of fuels: primitive lights made by burning natural woods like pine and hinoki (Japanese cedar), lights using fish oil or vegetable oil and candles. The wide variety of lamps depended on the fuel used In Ryo-no-gige, a famous legal work of 834 by Kiyohara no Natsuno et al. commenting on a law called Yoro-Ritsuryo which was enacted in 757, lamps were clearly classified into two groups by the fuel used: oil or candle wax. The differentiation even today by dealers between todai (oil-lamp stands) and shokudai (candle-stands) comes from this. 

Lighting equipment has changed with the trend of the times; it has been handed down to posterity with variations, depending on how and why they were used.

fig.8 Akoda andon lamp (The shape of paper cove resembles that of an akoda-uri type gourd.).
The picture was taken using only natural light in autumn twilight. The mother-of-pearl work on
the stand placed on the 
tokonoma is brought out by the soft light.

fig.9 Red raku ware tankei or short lamp stand (detail)

Lighting equipment in the Edo period 

As the lights used in practical life get heavily damaged and stained, there are few examples which retain their original form till later ages. I think the old items which are still extant were made from the latter half of the Edo period to the early years of the Meiji period (1750-1880) at the earliest. Almost all the articles you see here come from that period. 

In the long history of "Japanese lights", this was the golden age. As the economy and culture developed, fuels like oil and candle wax which had been luxury goods, then spread gradually even to the lives of ordinary people. 

However, it was a fact that only the people who could let their power and money talk to their heart's content, were able to use as much light as they liked. Lights displayed a wide variety due to the differences in social standing between the well-to-do and common people, between urban areas and local areas, and between Edo and Kamigata (modern Tokyo and Osaka) regions, but implying a wider cultural area. 

Practicality and display 

The very wide range of lights in the Edo period can be roughly divided into two groups: lamps which laid great stress on practicality for the ordinary people and those with elaborate decoration and modeling meant to be admired. 
While the former have a simple and friendly form and sometimes show an unexpected beauty, the latter reflect the culture of that period and bring us various charrms. Artistic lamps making full use of advanced technical skills like gold lacquer, mother-of-pearl and inlay work, were sometimes produced for the samurai class or merchants, or to please tea ceremony masters or to liven up and add charm to pleasure quarters. From tIle viewpoint of design and decoration there are many remarkable articles among them. 

While I have collected lighting apparatus for more than ten years, I think that I would like to learn something more about the delicate feelings of people in those days toward lamps and their appreciation of the beauty of lamps. This comes from a sense of gratitude for today's plentiful supply of light. 

(This article appeared in 1993/ in the 22nd issue of Yuraku, published by Mugen Shuppan. The author is the chief priest at Kyosho-ji Temple in Tokyo.)

fig.10 funa-andon lamp (punt's andon lamp) 
Funa andon lamp was placed on the stem of 
Takase-bune which came in and out of shoals, so their draft was shallow. They were indispensable for transporting goods and people on rivers in the Edo period. On the back is inscribed in ink Kyoho Ni Hinoto-tori Takasegawa. "Kyoho Ni" refers to 1717. The author found it in Kyoto, so maybe it was used on Takase-bune in Kyoto. An unusual lantern. 

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