Gifu, where our company Ozeki & Co. is located, is the capital city of Gifu prefecture which is in the middle of Japan. During medieval Japan, its central location made Gifu very vital for the warlords who aspired to unify Japan, resulting in scores of castles being built in that area. Most of them vanished though a modern version of the Gifu Castle, which the prominent warlord Nobunaga Oda once lived in, was rebuilt in 1956. Standing on the top of Mt. Kinka, this castle has become a symbol of the city.
The Nagara River, which flows through Gifu, is one of the three clearest rivers in Japan. Every year from May to October, cormorant fishing takes place along this river. Cormorant fishing is a traditional fishing technique in which fishermen use cormorants, large aquatic birds, to catch small amphidromous fish called ayu in the river. Claiming more than 1,300 years of history, cormorant fishing in Gifu is now protected by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan.
Most of Gifu’s land is located on the alluvial plain of the Nagara river so it has rich soil.
Gifu is also well-known as one of the top producers of strawberries and soybeans for edamame.
From the Emperor to Isamu Noguchi
For centuries, locally sourced bamboo and washi paper have been available in Gifu, which eventually flourished as a famous producer of paper lanterns. Ozeki was originally founded in 1868 in Gifu as a dealer of household goods including Gifu paper lanterns. We started to get involved in manufacturing lanterns soon after and then turned into a manufacturer of Gifu paper lanterns in 1891.
Gifu paper lanterns became widely known in 1876 when a pair of them were presented to the Meiji Emperor. We also had the honor of presenting a pair of our lanterns to the Showa Emperor in 1928, which are still used by the Imperial House of Japan.
In 1951, Ozeki started to work with the world-renowned Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi to create sculpture-like lanterns which Mr. Noguchi had designed. After a series of prototypes, we successfully delivered his designs in 1952. Mr. Noguchi named them “Akari,” which means lights in Japanese, and designed about 200 unique paper lightings in various sizes and shapes before he passed away in 1988. We have also worked with other international artists who were inspired by “Akari.”
In recent years, Ozeki has collaborated with a number of Japanese artists and designers to launch stylish and modern versions of Gifu paper lanterns including the Letter lanterns.
Detailed Work with Traditional Skills
Gifu paper lanterns are typically made of thin bamboo wires and thin yet strong Mino washi paper from the nearby city of Mino.
Because Ozeki’s lanterns are entirely made by hand, the skills of our craftspeople are critical in the production process. The most essential techniques are “surikomi,” “hari,” and “etsuke.” Surikomi is a printing technique using special stencils to add patterns on washi paper or silk. Hari is a long and delicate process. First, make the lantern frame by stretching a thin and long bamboo wire across a lantern mold, then paste washi paper or silk onto the frame and finally cut off excess parts with a razor to make a lantern shape. Etsuke is to paint pictures directly onto the lantern. Some of our artisans are certified Traditional Craftsman, a national certificate only those with more than 12 years of experience can be entitled to.
Apart from our traditional lanterns, we have teamed up with a local designer, Yuka Noritake, to create the Letter lanterns. As the name suggests, each Letter lantern can be folded flat enough to fit in an envelope to be sent as a letter with your message written directly on the lantern. In addition to the plain version, we also created versions with paintings of flowers and other Japanese motifs, which are perfect for special presents and souvenirs.
Relaxing Lights of Gifu Paper Lanterns
Gifu paper lanterns have been associated with the summer festival called Obon, a holiday period where we believe the spirits of the dead return to this world to visit their families. Lanterns are said to guide those spirits to their homes. In this day and age, as the times change, these summer lanterns are not widely used as before.
With the hopes of spreading the charms of Gifu paper lanterns, we have created modern-styled lanterns such as Letter lanterns and other interior lightings. Whether traditional or modern, we apply the same amount of techniques and passions to create each of our lanterns. We hope the subtle glow of the light through washi paper will add warmth to your home and bring inner peace to your busy everyday life throughout the year.
Gold Award: Liege International Exhibition, Belgium
Gold Award: Paris Arts and Crafts Exhibition, France
Silver Award: Paris International Exhibition, France
Silver Award: Louisiana Purchase Exposition, United States
Gold Award: National Industrial Exhibition, Takamatsu, Kagawa
Good Design Award of Small and Medium Enterprises in 1988