About Andon and traditional Japanese lanterns

Andon are less well known outside of Japan than chochin, collapsible lanterns made with paper laid over a wire or bamboo frame, or toro, stationary stone and bronze lanterns typically found in temples and gardens. However, in Japan the ubiquitous andon were used for centuries from the Edo period though the Meiji period and into the twentieth century.

Andon consist of a metal, bamboo, or more commonly, wood frame covered with paper. They might have legs or handles. They might be made to hang from a hook or have only three sides and be fixed to a wall. Traditionally they housed a simple oil lamp consisting of a small dish of oil and a wick. The first image on the right, a wood block by Utagawa Yoshimune titled "Lamps and Lanterns", will give you and idea of the variety of andon shape and useage.

In his book Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, first published in 1885, the American zoologist and orientalist, Edward S. Morse described and illustrated several types of andon (second image) and also noted that their light was “dim” and “feeble”. Morse found much to praise in his study of Japanese homes and furnishings. However, with regards to the merits of andon lighting, perhaps he was not quite attuned to the aesthetic quality of soft light diffused through paper which was so highly prized in Japanese culture and which enhanced the night time experience as opposed to just eliminating the darkness.

Should someone choose to read or study after dark there were ways to deal with the limitations of lamplight diffused through paper panels. Andon with hinged or sliding front panels could be opened to allow the light to burn brightly in the direction of the reader (image 3). Indeed there were yagakuyo-andon (study lanterns) with glass covering a portion of the front panel made specifically for reading.

Ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints from the Edo and Meiji periods provide many details of the commonplace items and everyday life in which andon are often depicted providing aesthetic quality as well as utilitarian service (images 4-6). Sometimes they were solely intended to provide a bit of colour and enjoyment (image 7) as is still the case today.

To learn more about andon here are some links for further reading:


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