Last month, the chōchin (提灯, a Japanese traditional lantern) at Kaminarimon (雷門, the gate of Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, in Tokyo’s Taito Ward) was replaced with a new one, the first time it has been renewed since 2003.
The Kaminarimon chōchin is 3.9 meters high, 3.3 meters in diameter and 700 kg in weight. It has the kanji 雷門 written in black on a red background.
A shinise gyōsha (老舗業者, a respected company with long standing) in Kyoto made the new chōchin lantern.
The original chōchin lantern burned down along with the Kaminarimon itself in the late Edo Period, but was rebuilt in 1960 with the help of Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic Corp.
Consumer-electronics maker Panasonic is, of course, a major manufacturer of light bulbs, but the history of chōchin lanterns, which were used by ordinary people in Japan before the invention of electricity, goes back at least 1,000 years.
The oldest record indicating Japanese used chōchin lanterns is in a book written in 1085. The oldest drawing of one is from 1536.
Chōchin are usually near-cylinder in shape, with a honegumi (骨組み, skeleton) of thin takehigo (竹ひご, bamboo sticks) wrapped in shōjigami (障子紙, paper used in shōji Japanese traditional sliding door). Rōsoku (ローソク or 蝋燭, candles) are placed inside chōchin and in the past people would hang the lantern from a large bamboo stick in the dark.
Chōchin lanterns can be collapsed for easy storage when not in use.
A typical use for chōchin lanterns these days is to hang them at jinja (神社, shrines), other traditional places or in front of ippai nomiya (一杯飲み屋, small bars).
Euphemistically, middle-aged sarariiman (サラリーマン, salarymen) or older people call such bars aka-chōchin (赤提灯, lit: red chōchin lantern). “Aka-chōchin de ippai hikkakemashō” (「赤提灯で一杯引っ掛けましょう」, “Let’s have a drink at a small bar”) is an expression you may hear around 6 p.m. at work, or later in the evening among a group of drunk people looking for a venue for a sanjikai (三次会, the third drinking party of the night).
Chōchin have spawned a whole variety of spinoffs and expressions. For example, restaurants that use Japanese ingredients for more than half their ingredients hang midori-chōchin (緑提灯, green chōchin lantern), according to the website of Midori Chochin Jimukyoku office.
Hana-chōchin (鼻提灯, lit: nose chōchin, but actually means a snot bubble) is what you get when you are in a deep sleep, although you don’t actually get to see a snot balloon unless you read manga. Hana-chōchin wo tsukeru (鼻提灯を付ける, Making a snot bubble) means taking a nap, typically in an inappropriate place and occasion such as a classroom.
Chōchin-mochi (提灯持ち, a person holding a chōchin lantern for someone else) can be used in a literary meaning as well as in a connoted meaning of a person sucking up to someone bigger.
A word derived from chōchin-mochi is chōchin-kiji (提灯記事, puff piece i.e., a newspaper article overly supporting a particular company or product).
Fugu-chōchin (ふぐ提灯, fugu blowfish chōchin lanterns) are made of fugu instead of bamboo sticks and paper. Fugu-chōchin are popular souvenirs in Japan at the moment, with people buying them as decorations rather than actual lanterns
Andon (行灯, another kind of traditional Japanese lantern) were also used for lighting in premodern Japan. Andon lanterns also use bamboo sticks for the skeleton and paper to cover.
There are several differences between chōchin and andon. Andon are typically a rectangular prism rather than a cylinder. Chōchin lanterns also can be portable while andon lanterns are not.
The lighting source for chōchin is typically a candle, andon usually use oil on a hizara (火皿, fire plate.) In the Edo Period, people used fish oil or natane (菜種, colza). An old Japanese myth says that “bakeneko (化け猫, monster cats) lick the oil in andon lanterns at night.” The myth is said to stem from the fact that the oil that was used was fish oil, which was cheap but billows smoke and releases an unpleasant odor.
You may find andon lanterns in a ryokan (旅館, Japanese traditional hotel). They may also be used as signs in front of luxury Japanese restaurants.
Also, lamps showing where exits are in a building, box-shape signs with light bulbs in them at bus stops that illuminate the timetable and other types of glowing signs are also called andon.
Derived from andon, hiru-andon (昼行灯, daytime andon) is a phrase meaning useless people, i.e., as useless as a lantern in daylight.
Salarymen who have hana-chōchin (鼻提灯）at work may be hiru-andon (昼行灯). They can go to midori-chōchin restaurants to be environmentally friendly, but later go to aka-chōchin for their sanjikai. When drunk they may see an illusion of bakeneko licking the oil from an andon.