Collector’s 1,800 lighters like old flames, not for discard pile

by David Waddell

KYOTO — To the average person, a cigarette lighter is just a 100 yen convenience store item to be tossed in the garbage when the fuel runs out.

But to retired Kyoto businessman Makoto Yamaguchi, 48, cigarette lighters are an all-consuming passion. He has amassed a collection of roughly 1,800 antique lighters, worth an estimated 10 million yen.

“To me, the old cigarette lighters are a symbol of craftsmanship that you just don’t find in this day and age of mass production,” Yamaguchi said. “Many of the high-grade oil and flint lighters have engraving and are made of gold or silver, and a lot of the prewar Japanese models were handmade by artisans who incorporated a great deal of creativity into their designs.”

The history of cigarette lighters in the industrialized world dates back to the 1880s, but it wasn’t until the end of World War I that the widespread use of tobacco products created a strong demand for smoking accessories.

In keeping with the image propagated in advertising and films of smoking as hip and glamorous, companies began to manufacture lighters that not only performed a simple function but possessed aesthetic merit as well.

Classically styled lighters made by Dunhill, Cartier and Asprey catered to the affluent smoker and have become today’s collectibles, fetching up to 5 million yen, according to Yamaguchi.

He believes his fascination with lighters relates indirectly to growing up in a house with kerosene lighting, and seeing the bluish-yellow flame of a lighter still evokes a sense of nostalgia in him. He began collecting lighters at the age of 19 after a picture of a lighter in a magazine caught his eye.

He acquires lighters through a network of collector friends and by scouring flea markets, antique stores and recycle shops; he also travels abroad frequently to add to his collection.

Part of the fun of collecting, he said, is stumbling upon exotic models that sometimes can be had for a song if the seller is not aware of their actual value. He once picked up a rare, American-made lighter at a flea market at Toji Temple in Kyoto for 1,500 yen. It is worth between 80,000 yen and 100,000 yen.

Although the majority of his collection is comprised of tasteful, decorative pieces that you might see in a Hollywood film from the ’50s, he also has a handful of frivolous ones, such as a tacky Chinese model, guaranteed to enrage Christians, showing Jesus on the cross and blasting a butane flame from his head at the push of a button.

His real passion these days, however, are the prewar Japanese models that exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship and innovation, especially those from the 1920s.

“In the ’20s, Japan was undergoing a renaissance of sorts and enjoyed a period of freedom that it had never known. The old class system had been dismantled, and the country opened its doors further to the West. A lot of Japanese traveled to Europe and were influenced by the burgeoning art scene there. All of this artistic expression and freedom worked itself into lighter manufacturing, and I think the designs from this period are the most creative,” he said.

In addition to collecting lighters, Yamaguchi also collects other antiques and sometimes picks up items worth small fortunes for free. This year he obtained an Edo Period plate, worth millions of yen, and a Meiji Era gold coin, worth an estimated 350,000 yen, when an acquaintance wanted to empty out his old house before its demolition.