Dear Japan Times,

What the heck are those lanterns strung up in the streets of my neighborhood at this time of year? Some line each side of the street from one power pole to the next, so I thought they were simply summer decorations. But others are hung in rows on a wooden frame, and I notice that each one seems to have something different written on it in kanji. Can you tell me the meaning of them?

Lee B., Tokyo

Whether swaying along a sidewalk in a summer breeze or suspended neatly in a frame, the chochin (lanterns) you describe serve a similar purpose: to acknowledge businesses that have contributed money to a local matsuri (festival). Unless only one company has chipped in — unthinkable in festival-crazy Japan — you are guaranteed to see a wild array of characters. Like everything else in Japan, chochin follow protocol. As picturesque as they may be, the chochin that you find along the streets actually represent low-end contributions to a festival, while the more staid (and, in my view, less charming) framed variety shine on behalf of donors with deeper pockets, I was told by chochin wholesaler Koichi Takayama.

You may have noticed the variety of colors the lanterns come in. Other than the ubiquitous red and white — used by Japanese to mark auspicious occasions and said to be a symbol for the cycle of life — tutti-frutti hues like sky blue, bamboo-shoot green and garish pink are thrown in apparently for nothing more than cheer.

Neither are chochin thought to bring much in the way of good fortune for the people they honor. Having a lantern on display next to that of the neighboring shop “is more about a feeling of togetherness,” said Takayama. That, or the fear of being labeled a cheapskate. “It wouldn’t do to be the only guy on the block who didn’t pony up,” Takayama acknowledged with a chuckle. “The Japanese are a people who can’t say ‘No.’ “

Still, as Japanese as chochin may appear to us today, they actually trace their ancestry to other cultures entirely. The prototype for the larger family of Japanese lanterns — including stone varieties found at temples, shrines and in next-door grandma’s backyard — originated in India, passed through China, and arrived in Japan on the coattails of Buddhism in the sixth century.

Paper lanterns were originally shaped like baskets with a handle, a style found in China between the 14th and 17th centuries. The design gradually evolved, with ancestors of the collapsible type seen at Japanese festivals first appearing regularly in the late 16th century.

A multitude of new styles flourished during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Though lanterns were commonly employed by the priestly set, proprietors in brothel districts began using them to greet and see off customers (who knows, maybe as some kind of mock absolution). Lanterns sprouted up in new shapes and sizes everywhere: in front of city offices, merchant storefronts and funeral processions.

Today, though largely replaced in daily life by electrical lighting, Takayama said thousands of categories of chochin can still be found. Hand-painted plastic fare come for as little as 3,000 yen, but Takayama estimates the giant Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) lantern suspended over the entryway to Tokyo’s Asakusa Shrine costs well over 1 million yen.

For further illumination on chochin, visit Takayama Syouten Co.’s Web site, www.chouchinkadoki.com/. It features a beautiful slideshow introduction and a vivid selection of lanterns, with prices. It is in Japanese only.

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