A craftsman from France has combined two distinct art forms to give new life to “Suifu chochin” Japanese paper lanterns made famous in Mito, the capital city of Ibaraki Prefecture in eastern Japan.
Jeff Rudge, 45, hopes his lanterns will help preserve the tradition for the future. He uses a technique that melds stained glass, a craft he learned from his German grandfather, with thin strips of bamboo and Japanese paper to create original designs that bring out vivid colors using light.
Minoru Iijima (R) and Jeff Rudge are pictured in the Suifu Chochin Workshop in Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Sept. 13, 2023. (For editorial use only)(No reuse permitted)(Kyodo)
Suifu was another name for Mito in the Edo period (1603-1868), and the city is known as one of the famous production hubs of chochin, or “bucket lights,” which were used daily by Japanese people.
Today, chochin, which use electric bulbs rather than the traditional flame, are sold as souvenirs and are widely used to decorate festivals and other events. “Akachochin” (red lanterns) hang outside Japanese “izakaya” taverns as beacons drawing in thirsty and hungry customers.
“I want to bring in a new style of chochin while preserving and promoting traditions,” Rudge told Kyodo News in a recent interview.
Jeff Rudge creates “Suifu chochin” lanterns at his workshop in Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Sept. 13, 2023.(For editorial use only)(No reuse permitted)(Kyodo)
At the workshop he runs, Rudge works surrounded by many pre-painted white lanterns. He carefully bends bamboo strips into hoops with his well-practiced hands to construct the frames on which the Japanese paper is affixed. A subtle amount of force must be applied, depending on how challenging the bamboo is to work.
“It is difficult to deal with natural materials, but I find it fun to work on each piece one by one,” he said.
Originally from the eastern region of France, Rudge married his Japanese wife, Satoko, whom he met on a trip, and moved to her hometown in Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 2005.
A “Suifu chochin” lantern with a stained bamboo pattern is pictured in July 2023 in Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Rudge)(Kyodo)
Minoru Iijima, 84, Rudge’s father-in-law, had operated the Suifu Chochin Workshop in the city for over 50 years. The Frenchman grew to admire Iijama’s skills because of a love of craftsmanship since he was a child, and he saw an opportunity in 2017.
Rudge had been working as an English teacher but after hearing his father-in-law was considering closing the business due to the lack of a successor, he asked to become an apprentice and Iijima readily accepted. Iijama worked closely with Rudge to develop his skills and the younger man inherited the workshop in 2021.
Suifu chochin manufacturing is said to have spread during the Edo period as a side job for low-ranking samurai who were living in poverty and began to flourish when it became an industry backed by the Mito domain, the governing body at that time.
At its peak, there were some 30 stores, but due to declining demand for chochin as a daily necessity, the number of stores has decreased to three today.
Artisans make “chochin” paper lanterns around the early Showa period, in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of Suzuki Mohei Shoten)(Photo use permitted only for the story concerned)(Kyodo)
The coronavirus pandemic also damaged chochin sales. Demand for the Japanese paper lanterns, which are a mainstay of shrines and nighttime festivals, dried up when events were canceled around Japan due to COVID-19’s spread.
This crisis led Rudge to the idea of combining stained glass, a craft he learned from his grandfather when he was a boy, with his new passion.
Rudge’s innovation is to place stained glass on top of the chochin so that images of Mt. Fuji, bamboo, and other motifs are projected by the soft lantern light.
A stained glass “Suifu chochin” lantern with a pattern of Mt. Fuji is pictured in September 2023 in Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Kyodo)
Rudge currently only sells his lanterns to friends, but he hopes to gradually increase production and eventually make them available to buyers inside and outside of Japan.
“I want to create my own unique chochin by combining traditional techniques handed down from my Japanese father-in-law with the skills I learned from my German grandfather. I want to pass on the legacy of each family while preserving the traditions,” he said.