Symbolism of Lanterns



Lanterns were originally introduced into Japan by China. The first lanterns 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 was not until tea master Sen-no-Rikkyu introduced lanterns into Japanese tea gardens that they became a major garden element. Japanese tea ceremonies were often held in the evenings and light was needed to guide guests to the tea room.

There are four main types of stone lanterns: Tachi-gata or pedestal lanterns, ikekomi-gata or the so-called “buried lanterns,” oki-gata, the small, often portable lanterns and yukimi-gata, the famous “snow viewing” lanterns. Nitobe Memorial Garden has numerous, carefully placed lanterns.

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 that is generally hexagonal and topped by a hexagonal roof with pronounced scrolls at the points. The top is often in the form of a stylized lotus flower. The name “Kasuga” refers to the Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara 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 is therefore called a Kasuga lantern in reference to this Shinto shrine.

The Nitobe lantern has a lotus blossom and a dog, Dr. Nitobe’s birth sign, carved in it, as well as the 12 zodiacal signs or “earthly branches.” On the Nitobe lantern, the rat is aligned to the north, taking precedence as the first sign, indicating the month of December and the hour of midnight. The passage of time is marked around the base of the lantern. The Nitobe lantern has been interpreted to symbolize the male principle or “Father figure” as well as memorializing Dr. Nitobe himself. The Nitobe lantern was originally installed in UBC Botanical Garden 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.”

Snow-viewing lantern – yukimi-doro

This type of lantern, squat and broad-roofed, dates back to the early Edo period and is likely named because of the attractive capture of snowfall on the broad roof. The snow-viewing lantern in 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. 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 the Morioka district and it bears the crescent moon and stars of the Nitobe family crest.

Marriage lantern – Kasuga style

Like the Nitobe lantern, the Marriage lantern has the signs of the zodiac and the lotus blossom carved into it.

Remembering lantern – Oribe style

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


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].