Symbolism of Lanterns

History

Lanterns were originally introduced into Japan by China. The first ones were made of metal and primarily used to light doorways to shrines and temples. They were later made of stone for use in gardens, but it wasn't until they were introduced into Japanese tea gardens by tea-master Sen-no-Rikkyu did they become a major garden element. Japanese tea ceremonies were often held in the evenings and light was needed to guide guests to the tea-room.

Stone lanterns fall into four main types. Tachi-gata are pedestal lanterns, ikekomi-gata are the so-called “buried lanterns”, oki-gata small, often portable lanterns and yukimi-gata are the famous “snow viewing” lanterns.

The Nitobe Memorial garden has numerous lanterns, apparently very carefully placed. Some of the main ones are discussed below.

The Nitobe lantern - A pedestal lantern of the Kasuga type

A Kasuga lantern typically has a cylindrical column surmounted by an annulet (small ring). Above this is the lantern box, generally hexagonal and topped by a hexagonal roof with pronounced scrolls at the points. The top is often in the form of a stylised lotus flower. The name “Kasuga” refers to a Shinto shrine. The Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara was established in 768 AD and at first used solely by the Fujiwara family. Reaching the shrine involves a long walk through three gates (torii) along a path lined with tall imposing lanterns. This type of lantern (with a long pedestal and massive construction) is therefore called a Kasuga lantern in reference to this shrine.

The Nitobe lantern has carved in it a lotus blossom (flower of paradise and symbol of purity) and a dog (Nitobe's birth sign). Also carved are the 12 zodiacal signs or “earthly branches” (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, pig). On the Nitobe lantern, the rat is aligned to the north, taking precedence as the first sign: as such it indicates the month of December and the first (midnight) double-hour of the day. As one goes around the base of the Nitobe lantern, the passage of time is marked.

The Nitobe lantern has been interpreted to symbolise the male principle or “Father figure” as well as memorialising Nitobe himself. This lantern predates the Nitobe Memorial Garden. It was installed in the UBC Botanical Garden (then situated in the centre of Campus) in 1939 by the Japan Society and by the Japanese Associations of British Columbia with the inscription: “I.M., Inazo Nitobe, 1861-1933, Apostle of Goodwill Among Nations, Erected by his friends”. (See: The Ubyssey for Tuesday, October 3rd, 1939 - PDF)

Snow-viewing lantern - yukimi-doro:

This type of lantern, squat and broad-roofed, dates back to the early Edo period and is probably so named because of the attractive capture of snowfall on the broad roof. The snow-viewing lantern in the Nitobe Memorial Garden is situated on the Island of Eternity and is thought to represent the “mother figure” in the cycle of life.

Maiden lantern - yukimi doro:

The Maiden lantern, situated near the 11-plank bridge, is a smaller version of the snow-viewing lantern on the Island of Eternity, and is thought to represent courtship in the cycle of life. Consistent with this, the 11-plant bridge leads directly to the marriage lantern, representing early marriage.

Nitobe family crest lantern:

This lantern was not in Dr Mori's original design but was added later as a gift from the city of Morioka. The stone is local to Morioka district and it bears the crescent moon and stars of the Nitobe family crest.

Marriage lantern - Kasuga style:

This lantern, like the Nitobe lantern, has the signs of the zodiac and the lotus blossom carved into it.

Remembering lantern - Oribe style:

This lantern may commemorate Nitobe's Christian faith. It is named after its inventor, tea master Oribe Furuta (1544-1615). Japanese Christians could attach figures of the virgin Mary onto the flat front shaft of the lantern, buried underground, and so were able to worship secretly. In the Nitobe Memorial Garden, the image of the virgin on this lantern is kept half-exposed.

References

Matsuda, Shigeo [1907-]. (1988). Kirishitan-doro no shinko/Matsuda Shigeo cho. Tokyo: Kobunsha, Showa 63 [1988]. [Discusses Christian persecution in Japan in relation to lanterns].

Fukuchi, Kenshiro. (1985). Nihon no ishidoro / Kondo Yutaka kanshu ; Fukuchi Kenshiro cho. Tokyo: Rikogakusha. [Discusses stone carving and lanterns in temples art].





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