Modern Palm-Sized Chochin Lanterns Attract Young Craftspeople

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Aoi Masunaga of Shiraki Kougei paints a chochin lantern without first drawing rough sketches in Yame, Fukuoka Prefecture.

FUKUOKA — With quick brush strokes and no rough sketches, craftspeople draw cool patterns of landscapes, plants and flowers one after another.

At Shiraki Kougei, a company which manufactures Bon festival chochin lanterns in Yame, Fukuoka Prefecture, five women were seen painting the main part of a lantern, called the “hibukuro”(fire box). It is important for the image to look three-dimensional.

Aoi Masunaga, 36, who has been painting chochin lanterns for 12 years, said, “Since traditional chochin lanterns are made in pairs, I pay attention to the size, place and colors of my paintings.”

It is said that chochin lanterns originated as “ba-chochin” lanterns that were produced in Yame during the late Edo period (1603-1868) and hung in graveyards and other places. The chochin lanterns are produced through division of labor. Craftspeople are involved in the whole process, from making the frame of the fire box to binding the frame with thin bamboo sticks and applying washi paper and silk to the frame and painting. Because the required materials such as bamboo and washi paper can be obtained locally, production of the lanterns developed into a side business for local farmers.

owever, the industry’s conditions have become increasingly harsh. The number of craftspeople responsible for each step of the manufacturing process continues to fall due to the aging population and other reasons. Shiraki Kougei used to buy parts from about 160 craftspeople in and outside the area during the 1990s but the number has fallen to about 20 today.

Tomoomi Irie, 49, the second president of Shiraki Kougei, began hiring young craftspeople as regular employees in 2011 as part of efforts to encourage the next generation of craftspeople. Now, seven men and women with an average age of 30 are working for the company.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Palm-sized chochin lanterns characterized by modern designs

The number of families who have Buddhist altars at home has decreased, which has resulted in the annual production of chochin lanterns declining to about 130,000 from its peak of about 400,000. To help adapt to modern lifestyles, they tried to produce palm-sized lanterns that go well with both Japanese and Western styles. At first, they did not have a technique to make a frame for a 20-centimeter-high fire box, so they sent staff to a vocational school to study computer-aided design. After four years and several trial models, they completed the whole process in-house and created a mini lantern.

A new series of chochin lanterns characterized by modern designs has been created. Lanterns have been made in the shape of eggs, triangles, trees and other forms, adorned with seasonal paintings such as dandelions, waves, ears of rice and ice trees. The company launched the series in 2021 and sell about 2,000 lanterns a year. “I would like to design a chochin lantern by myself,” said Arisa Kitamura, 23, a new graduate who joined the company in April.

“I want to let young craftspeople exercise their abilities and produce chochin lanterns that can be used throughout the year,” Irie said.