No crowd will gather for the traditional lighting of the 17-century stone lantern on the Tidal Basin this year, because Washington’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival will be online. But the flame is far from the most interesting part of this unusual symbol of Japanese history and culture.
The mayor of Tokyo gave the lantern to the United States in 1954, but its surface is deeply weathered by a far longer history.
The Japanese government originally planned to send the lantern in the 1920s, but the idea was shelved as relations between the two countries chilled and eventually led to war.
After the wartime enemies became postwar allies, the lantern finally arrived, in March of 1954.
“It was an act of appreciation,” said John Malott, former Director of Japanese Affairs at the U.S. State Department and longtime president of the Japan-America Society of Washington D.C. “The Japanese ... were extremely grateful to the United States for how we helped them after [World War II], that we were not an abusive victor. So there was a tremendous sense of gratitude from the Japanese people and they supported us.”
The stone tells a very old story
The lantern was created in the middle of the 17th century for the funeral ceremony of Tokugawa Iemitsu, a Japanese shōgun, one of the iron-fisted military leaders who ruled the Japanese islands in the centuries before the 1868 Meiji Restoration elevated the emperor from a ceremonial titleholder to actual power.
Almost every square inch of the sculpture tells a story.
The lantern stands approximately 8 1/2 feet tall and weighs about two tons.
The round knob at the top represents a Buddhist sacred gem. Like the curved corners of classical Japanese roofs, the houju wards off evil spirits, protecting the rest of the lantern.
Meaning “umbrella,” it keeps weather off the firebox below. Carved with the Tokugawa family’s distinctive three-leaf hollyhock mon, or heraldic symbol.
The lantern’s firebox has a square opening, used to light the lantern each year. Symbolically, it represents the earth.
The symbol on the northwest face represents the crescent moon.
The three dots on the southern face may represent the Triad, a symbol deeply rooted in East Asian Buddhism. This is also the heraldic symbol (mon) of the Matsura, a branch of the clan that originally gave the lantern as a gift to the shōgun.
The symbol on the northeast face represents the sun.
The central support, carved with lotus blossoms at top and bottom, is the only part of the lantern that tells its story with words: a 370-year-old inscription, barely legible, dedicating the lantern and naming its donor.
The inscription gives the date: November 20, 1651. It says the lantern is a gift from Matsura Shigenobu, a daimyo, or feudal lord, in what is now western Kyushu, Japan.
The lantern sits on a lotus-blossom base and a concrete platform.
No random gift
The lantern was originally carved to commemorate Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), the third shōgun of the mighty Tokugawa clan, which unified feudal Japan under its stern rule for nearly 270 years. A grandson of clan patriarch and dynasty founder Tokugawa Ieyasu, Iemitsu is mainly remembered for the Sakoku Edict of 1635. The strict, brutally enforced policy of total isolation slammed the door on foreign trade, foreign religion and foreigners, who faced summary execution if they remained in Japan.
This sakoku policy stayed in place for over 200 years, until an American naval commander, Commodore Matthew Perry, dropped anchor at Yokohama in 1853. Using diplomacy — but backed with a flotilla of state-of-the-art warships — Perry convinced the Japanese to reopen trade and end the policy.
A century later, the Japanese commemorated this event by sending this lantern to the United States.
There’s a twin lantern out there
It originally was part of a two-lantern set installed as part of Tokugawa Iemitsu’s funeral ceremonies at his family’s shrine in what today is Ueno Park in Tokyo. Much of the published literature on the lanterns claims that the twin stands there to this day. However, Ueno Park’s lantern collection contains no matching lantern or even any mention of one.
Yoko Nishimura, Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Gettysburg College, who has traced the trails of many of these feudal-era Japanese lanterns, said she feels confident that the D.C. lantern’s twin, though perhaps not well displayed or labeled, is still around.
“It’s survived the many episodes where these stone and bronze lanterns were damaged or destroyed, or sold to foreign countries,” she said. "It survived until 1954 (the year the pair was split up and the Tidal Basin lantern was sent to Washington). That is significant. I don’t think they’d want to just destroy it.”
While Washington’s annual in-person celebration of Japanese history and culture may be on hold, there’s a few timeless pieces of Japan — the cherry trees and Tokugawa Iemitsu’s lantern among them — that stand as silent but enduring symbols of unity between countries that were once enemies.
Bonnie Berkowitz and Julia Mio Inuma also contributed to this story.