Streetlights

A History of Japan’s Street Lights, Part I: Stone Lanterns and Gas Lights

(Last Updated On: November 9, 2016)
Ukiyo-e woodcut by Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850) of a courtesan passing by a lantern. (Visipix.com)
Ukiyo-e woodcut by Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850) of a courtesan passing by a lantern. (Visipix.com)

 

First off, I’d like to welcome you to my new blog dedicated to lighting. As you may have noticed, this blog is a spinoff of The Contemporary Night Owl, which is a web directory and blog dedicated to the nighttime world. To be honest with you, I have been planning this blog for a while now and since things are about to get a little overcrowded as far as lighting and neon/LED topics are concerned, I decided that it was time to put my plans for a lighting blog into motion. Anyway, I hope you enjoy your visit here and come back as often as you can!

Now for the official first topic of this blog: A history of the street lights of Japan. This is a blog series that I’ve been working on from time to time over the past couple of years. Hopefully this series will be informative to those interested in the subject and help shed some light on the topic of Japanese streetlighting. Anyway, without further adieu, here goes:

 

Introduction

Japan is one of the world’s most modern countries. Its cities were modernized and planned by sophisticated urban planning from the period of the Meiji Restoration through the Taisho and early Showa Periods (roughly 1868 to the 1930s), rebuilt from the fires of the Second World War, and since the end of the 20th century Japanese cities have become some of the largest and most sophisticated cities in the world. These cities run 24 hours a day and people ranging from night shift workers to juvenile delinquents are out and about on the streets at night. In order for the cities of Japan to function at night, good street lighting systems are a necessity.

This blog series explores the history of Japanese street lights from the stone lanterns of yesteryear to the LED street lamps of today. This is the first entry of the series, which explores the earliest street lamps and the beginnings of citywide street light networks in Japan.

***Please note that I have NOT covered the electricity networks set up by the Japanese Imperial authorities in occupied Korea, China or Formosa (Taiwan) prior to World War II. Not only would those necessitate separate blog posts of their own, but are topics that are still highly controversial to this very day.***

Traditional Japanese Street Lights

Prior to the Meiji Restoration, the streets of Japanese cities such as Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) were lit by paper and wooden lanterns such as the kakeandon in front of store entrances, the toro (灯籠) lanterns made from wood or stone, or maybe just the natural lighting from the buildings and houses lining the streets. These lanterns were fueled by natural fuels such as rapeseed oil and paraffin.

Kake-toro lanterns made from stone were also used for lighting the way at temples and gardens all over the country. Many of these old temple lanterns are still in use today, lighting the temple ground paths for visitors just as they have for hundreds of years. One kake-toro lamp in particular played a big role in the development of Japanese street lighting and more about its role will be discussed below.

The stone lantern at Sengan-en garden where Japan's possible first gas light was installed.
The stone lantern at Sengan-en garden where Japan’s possible first gas light was installed.

The First Gas-Powered Street Lamp in Japan

According to some sources, Japan’s very first gas-powered light wasn’t installed on the streets of Edo, Kyoto, or any other urban area of the country for that matter. It was installed in the gardens belonging to an Edo-era feudal warlord in Kagoshima prefecture during the 1850s! This light was installed in a giant stone lantern in the Sengan-en garden, which belonged to the Shimazu family who have been a constant part of the local landscape for over 700 years.

The Earliest Japanese Street Lights

Demands for creating new street lamps started growing right after the Meiji Restoration began in the late 1860s. This was the time when Japan started opening up to the outside world and modernizing, leaving the feudalism and fiefdoms of the past centuries behind. The foreign settlements that were opening up across the country needed new lighting to get around at night and the existing paraffin lamps just weren’t enough.

By most official accounts, however, Japan’s first public gas-powered lamp debuted to the nation in 1872 at the key port city of Yokohama. This light network was created and installed by Nippon Shachu, with a little help from French engineer Henri Auguste Pelegrin (1841-1882). Two years later, the lamp network was turned over to the Yokohama city government and the city’s Gas Bureau was established on the site. Today this site is now the location of a school, but two of the old gas lamps remain on the site as a testimony to the historical events that happened there some 145 years ago!

A street lamp in front of the Mint's head office in Osaka.
An old street lamp in front of the Mint’s head office in Osaka.

Also during the early 1870s, the Mint Compound in Osaka set up a network of gas lamps around their compound. For a period of time, the Mint’s network would light up the whole compound at night while the rest of the city stayed in near pitch-black darkness!

Tokyo’s First Street Lamps and the Great Ginza Fire

Street lamps began to light up the streets of Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration, but Japan’s gas-powered street lamps weren’t just a result of the country’s opening-up to the outside world during this period. They were also a result of the Great Ginza Fire of 1874 and the rebuilding of that district of city. City officials figured that while they were building new buildings and houses to replace the ones that had burned down, they might as well install a district-wide network of street lamps while they were at it! By the end of 1874, the streets of the newly-rebuilt Ginza were lit up at night and that network of street lamps would be extended across the whole city of Tokyo over the course of the decade.

Please click here for Part II of this series, which explores the beginnings of electric street lighting in Japan.

 

Links:

Bibliography:

  • Seidensticker, Edward; Richie, Donald. Tokyo from Edo to Showa, 1867-1989: The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2010, pgs. 92-94.
  • Hanashiro, Roy S. Thomas William Kinder and the Japanese Imperial Mint, 1868-1875. Boston: Brill Academic Publishing, 1999, pgs. 165-166.

 

 

(Image credits: Sengan-en picture copyright: STA3816. Osaka Mint picture: 663highland. Both images used via Wikimedia Commons per CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

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