This project was all about having to make choices: spend the next twenty years hunting for extant artifacts, iconographic evidence and better translations of better descriptions or have lanterns for camp this season; take up basket weaving or have lanterns for camp this season; build something authentic guaranteed to burn down the Imperial palace or have safe, useable lanterns for camp this season.
Saionji no Hana is a lady of the Japanese Imperial court. Normally she would not be caught outdoors after dark, even if on a pilgrimage to some shrine. However, The Exalted One, His Imperial Majesty, Son of the Sun, is best served by her presence in the Kingdom of the West. She must have a place to shelter when she ventures out to one of these outlandish tournaments held by her hosts. Lanterns are but one of the small comforts a rustic pavilion ought to have.
Kanebako Masami, a director of the Nihon no Akari (History of Japanese Lighting Museum), writes: “Chochin lanterns were made of rolled takehigo (thin strips of bamboo) in a spiral, with Japanese paper pasted on them and a lit candle inside. Originally people covered bamboo baskets with paper and called them chochin.”
Masami goes on to describe the development in the late 16th century of a chochin design peculiar to Japan in which the lantern could be collapsed and folded away when not in use. While this does not provide a precise date for the kaga or basket chochin, it would evidently pre-date 16th century paper-and-bamboo chochin.
In my quest for camp furnishings I originally turned to the ubiquitous Cost Plus paper globes with battery powered LEDs. I didn’t like them much when I bought them, I liked them even less when the lights inside didn’t work and I had to purchase additional LED “tea lights” and toss those inside. After their first evening in the dew, I had to re-glue the bottoms on every single one. Their only real virtue is that they are fire-safe and they make the visual statement “Japanese encampment” to even the most casual observer. The fragility of these modern lanterns only serves to illustrate why the hunt for documentary evidence has been so challenging.
Masami’s article in Daruma magazine is an excellent English-language overview of the history of how the Japanese lit their homes – from early stone and clay pots burning pine, to lamp stands fueled by rapeseed oil, to candlesticks and various paper shaded lanterns and onward. However, fire (by itself or precipitated by earthquake) routinely burned down Imperial palaces and peasant hovels alike and I hoped to find something that could be adapted safely for SCA use. The chochin, being an “enclosed flame” lamp, seemed worth pursuing. The few English language sites and sources I found kept repeating the statement that the chochin was originally no more than a basket with a candle inside. Trying to find iconographic evidence or extant examples proved difficult, given the fragile materials likely to be involved.
Not long ago, I came across a 2007 online article in PingMag, a Tokyo-based online magazine on crafts, design and pop culture. The article on chochin by “Ryoko” and translated by “Junko” was primarily devoted to how paper chochin are made and decorated. However, it did include a photograph of a kaga-chochin sitting on a shelf in a lantern-maker’s shop. No date, no detailed description. As historical documentation, it was pretty feeble. However, it was a start.
I started off on a tangent, looking for Japanese baskets. I even found one at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum from the 16th century. (The photo below is my own.) The openwork on this flower basket is similar to that in the PingMag basket – and looks a great deal like the cane-work used to make chair seats. Tall, narrow baskets resembling the shape of the PingMag basket are often used for flower arrangement, and an openwork weave would make the most sense for adaptation as a lantern.
I am in debt to Ii Saburou Katsumori (Joshua Logan), who recently sent me a scan of the pages below from Nihonshi mono jiten, a volume on Japanese historical artifacts. At the bottom of the left-hand page, there is a kaga chochin. His translation of the original text describing the item:
"[A chochin is] a type of carried lantern where paper is spread across a basketwork lantern, and a candle[? kanji unclear] is put in. The word "Chochin" comes from the Song dynasty, and it spread in the Muromachi period through Zen institutions. At first, they couldn't be folded up, but "box" chochin (hako-chochin) with the accordion style mid-section that could be folded was born in the Bunroku period (1592-1596) and this style flourished in the Edo period." The kago-chochin is the one on the bottom row of page 254, 3rd from the left. It's difficult to have an idea of the scale, but the rod slotted through the top handle would have been for carrying.
In a case of pure dumb luck, I happened to be inside Genji Antiques about two weeks after I first wrote this article. Lo and behold, I stumbled upon the following item, labeled "andon." No date, just a price of $75. This one is a two-piece structure, allowing the shade to be lifted off, and in this instance, the paper is on the inside of the shade.
Flat oval reed
Pre-woven cane webbing
Synskin fiberglass shoji “paper.”
Titebond II wood glue, generic brand white glue.
I wanted a fire and heat resistant base for my lanterns, so I built them to fit a 5” diameter metal pillar-candle dish. I also wanted a design that would be fire-safe and durable enough to put up with dew and other weather conditions.
Flat oval reed was cut, glued and clamped into rings big enough to accommodate the candle dishes. Craft plywood was then glued to the bottoms and trimmed to size with a craft saw.
The edges (and anywhere I planned to cut) on the cane webbing were stabilized with masking tape and cut with shears. The tape was then carefully removed.
Glue was applied to the inner edge of the cane on the lamp bottoms and to the edge of the cane where it would overlap along the side of the basket. The cane was rolled into a tube, fitted into the basket bottom and secured with thread in several spots along the overlap to allow the glue to set. More flat oval reed was cut, glued and clamped to form an outer edge to the basket top, then a second ring was glued and clamped inside. Handles were cut from flat oval reed, and glued in place between the inner and outer top rings.
I did consider whether I wanted to attempt this project using paper instead of the Synskin. While it is fire and water resistant, it is fiberglass and requires some care in handling. However, the preliminary light test was no contest: the Synskin outperformed plain old paper in allowing light to pass through it. Votive candles were lit inside each lantern and the shade materials propped against the outside of each basket. The Synskin is on the left.
The Synskin was cut to size, glued along one seam and held in place with rubber bands until the glue had dried.
The lanterns had their first outdoor field test on April 3, 2009 at Mists Coronet (West Kingdom). Earthquake putty was applied to the bottom of votive glasses, which were set inside the lanterns. Votive candles were used and the bottom and sides of the baskets were checked periodically for hot spots. They remained cool to the touch all evening until the candles burned out.
For this project, I had to make the choice of authentic vs. safe. Safe won and dictated how I would light my camp and what design and materials I would choose.
Is it documentable?
Is it plausible? Come by after dark and see.
Masami, Kanebako. “History of Lanterns,” Daruma Japanese Art & Antiques Magazine, Issue 24, Vol. 6. No. 4, Autumn 1999, p.21.
Ryoko, translated by Junko. “Chochin Design: the magic world of Japanese lanterns” PingMag. Yes Communications, 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20070425202402/http://www.pingmag.jp/2007/02/22/lantern/
Nihonshi mono jiten, (Encyclopedia of Japanese Historical Objects) Heibonsha, Tokyo, 2001. ISBN 4-582-12420-8事
The Caning Shop, for flat oval reed and pre-woven chair cane. http://www.caningshop.com/
Tap Plastics, Synskin synthetic shoji. http://www.tapplastics.com/shop/product.php?pid=241
Copyright Lisa A. Joseph 2009.