LIGHTING UP THE NIGHT SKY
Every year in early October, Nihonmatsu in central Fukushima holds
a traditional festival that features huge drum-carts that are pulled
through the city's streets. These carts are festooned with hundreds
of paper lanterns. A total of about 2500 lanterns are hung from the
seven carts for this popular three hundred year old event. The colourful
lamps, however, are quite fragile and many must be replaced each year.
There are two enterprises that create traditional chochin or
lanterns in Nihonmatsu, one of which has a history almost as long as
that of the area's vibrant festival.
the Asakura family started making lanterns some eight generations ago,
in the early 1700's, the product of their labours were widely used for
illumination in everyday life. In modern Japan, however, the paper lamps
are in demand for decorative purposes and for traditional festivals
only. Yuji Asakura, the eighth generation of the clan to run the family
business, says that because of the changes in demand over the years
the family decided to focus on crafting artistic creations instead of
mass production. This philosophy led to some downsizing several years
ago, leaving only Yuji, his wife, and his mother to run the business.
The decrease in demand also reduced the number of local lantern - making
enterprises from five to the present two. Today, instead of starting
from scratch, the Asakura family buys plain collapsible lanterns of
bamboo and paper and then adds the colour to them that makes celebrations
like the Nihonmatsu Chouchin Mat -suri such a vibrant event.
Ironically, after seeing firsthand the hardships his parents went through
in devoting themselves to their craft, Yuji Asakura chose the life of
an office worker, only to be called back to help the family when his
father fell ill. A few years later, the elder Asakura passed away, and
Yuji found himself running the enterprise. As his apprenticeship was
a quick one, Yuji had to labour hard in learning the difficult art of
painting the uneven lantern surfaces. His father's shadow draws long
over Yuji's work even today, as the son pushes himself to great lengths
to match the brilliance of his father's art.
It is important to Yuji Asakura that he carries on the traditional
craft that he has learned, as he feels it is significant to the culture
and character of the people of his hometown. He does not, however, want
to push his own sons into following his footsteps.
traditional Japanese chouchin lantern is made with thread and
course paper stretched over bamboo hoops in an oval shape and is often
hung from the eaves of houses, or carried through the streets in a procession.
It takes about two weeks to make such a lantern, with most of that time
spent decorating and protecting the paper exterior. Japanese characters,
family crests and festive patterns are often painted onto the exterior,
a painstaking job because of the bumpy surfaces created by the lantern's
bamboo ribs. Yuji Asakura says that achieving the proper balance in
design when decorating a lantern is something that requires intense
concentration, and is therefore quite tiring. After decorating, the
lantern is covered with linseed oil in order to protect the course paper
from the elements. Paper lanterns are then left to dry for a few days
before wooden rings are attached to the top and bottom and they are
collapsed down into a flat ring for market.
Lanterns have been used in Japan for over 1200 years, so it is not
surprising that there are a variety of sizes and types. The Asakura
family handles about twenty different types to fill orders from around
the prefecture and around the country. They decorate between 3000 and
4000 lanterns a year, shipping most of them in the summer and autumn
for various festivals such as the Chouchin Matsuri or lizaka's
The Asakura clan's fortunes have paralleled that of the paper lantern
for generations. Despite the ups and downs, they are proud to further
a traditional art form that, for them, is a family affair.