Fri, Jan 24, 2020

Yanai’s Kingyo Chochin lantern: Symbol of a merchant town in Yamaguchi Prefecture

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Yanai's Kingyo Chochin (Photo courtesy of Yanai city)
By Gema Galvez Luis / CIR for Yamaguchi Prefecture

Upon visiting the white walls of Yanai, down in Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan, you cannot help but notice the vivid red goldfish swinging from almost every corner. These endearing paper lanterns, called Kingyo Chochin, are an immensely popular craft that have become the symbol of the town. They can be found on signs, manhole covers, stationery goods, and even on the business cards of Yanai city officials. Some might notice a resemblance to the Nebuta of Aomori Prefecture, and would be on the right track, as they are distant relatives. But how did such similar crafts come to be popular on opposite ends of Honshu?

The white walls of Yanai, Yamaguchi Pref. (Photo courtesy of Gema Galvez Luis)
The Kingyo Chochin depicted on a fire hydrant (Photo courtesy of Gema Galvez Luis)

It all started in the Edo Period (1603-1867), when Yanai thrived as a merchant town, gathering people from all over the country. During that time, many merchants used ships that transported trade goods along the coast of the Sea of Japan. It is said that a Yanai local, dye merchant Rinzaburo Kumagaya, used one of these ships and came across the paper goldfish lanterns of Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture. He decided to bring one back to Yamaguchi, which is said to have been white, and painted it with the red dye of traditional yanai-jima textile, giving birth to the town’s first Kingyo Chochin.

With time, this craft became popular among the townspeople, since it was cute and easy to make. They were especially enjoyed by children, who would play with the lanterns their parents made on summer festival nights, filling the town with hundreds of gleaming goldfish. However, with the arrival of the Second World War, people stopped making them, and the town almost lost its beloved craft. It was thanks to the efforts of Yoshihiro Kamiryo and other locals who studied old models and tried to modernize the technique that the Kingyo Chochin revived and came to be known as the ambassadors of this little town.

So, how are these lanterns that survived the passage of time made today? First, thin bamboo pieces are molded to form the body of the fish. Then, paper is glued to the structure and usually painted in the traditional red, although some might prefer it in other colors, such as blue or yellow. Then all that is left to do is to decorate and glue the eyes and tail, a design unique to the maker. Anyone willing to embark on their own Kingyo Chochin making journey is welcome to do so in Yanai Nishigura, a historical building located in the White Walls district.

According to local craftspeople there are no two goldfish lanterns that look the same. They all carry a little bit of the maker’s soul: the position of the fins, the decorations of the tail, the shape of the eyes… Yanai Kingyo Chochin instructors will be more than happy to guide you through your goldfish lantern making experience, and take delight in how their history adopts different shapes through the interpretation of those willing to give it a try.

The goldfish can be made at any time of the year, and so the town looks lovely regardless of the season, but the Yanai Kingyo Chochin Festival held every year on Aug. 13 is something else. On this day, townspeople celebrate Obon, a festivity where the spirits of one’s ancestors visit their relatives guided by the light from the lanterns. About 4,000 Kingyo Chochin swim in every corner of the town, and schools and local associations build three meter tall floats that are paraded through the town center. Typically, children will ride the lanterns and adults will compete to see who can spin it the fastest to the sound of taiko drums.

Kingyo Chochin are seen in every corner of the town during the festival. (Photo courtesy of Yanai city)
At the festival, townspeople compete to see who can spin the float the fastest. (Photo courtesy of Yanai city)
Kingyo Chochin floats parade through the town center (Photo courtesy of Yanai city)

In this familiar atmosphere, both locals and visitors help to guide Yanai’s ancestors return once more to the town they loved. And perhaps the first children who ran around holding the Kingyo Chochin can now see how their descendants have kept their tradition alive.

Through this simple but heartfelt craft, Yanai city has found an identity that binds its people together, as well as a way of opening a door to anyone willing to take a look into its history. So what do you say, would you like to partake in the past and future of Yanai?

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Gema Galvez Luis

Gema is from Tenerife, Spain. She graduated from the Autonomous University of Barcelona with a degree in translation and interpreting, as well as finishing her Master’s Degree in conference interpreting at the University of La Laguna, Tenerife. While in University, she enrolled in Dokkyo University in Saitama Prefecture to study for a year. In 2017, she joined the Yamaguchi Prefectural Government as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR), where she contributes to the region’s sisterhood with Navarra, the place of birth of Francis Xavier in Spain.



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