The Floating Lanterns Of Hiroshima

The Hiroshima event is not just about the 10,000-odd lanterns that float down a river.
It is about remembrance.
It is about dignity.
It is about respect.
It is about love, observes Sandeep Goyal.

August 6. On this very day, in 1945, the United States detonated an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima (the one dropped over Nagasaki was on August 9).

The two bombings between them killed 355,000 people in the two cities, most of whom were civilians.

I was in Hiroshima 12 years ago on this day to experience Toro Nagashi: The Floating Lanterns — Messages for Peace event that is held every year on the evening of August 6.

People gather in Hiroshima to pray for peace and float lanterns down the river, with personal messages written on them.

Several thousand lanterns are floated on the Motoyasu River that flows by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome), a Unesco World Heritage site in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.

I was mesmerised by the entire experience.

A fire was lit within each of the box-shaped lanterns, which were made by pasting paper on to a wooden frame.

The gently floating lanterns created a dreamy and ethereal spectacle, as the light from within each lantern swayed back and forth.

The lanterns were so numerous, and so tantalisingly divine, that the river seemed to hold them in a tight embrace, yet let them slowly disappear into the far horizon.

The event was hosted by the Hiroshima-shi Chuo-bu Shotengai Shinko Kumiai Rengokai, while the entire process starting from creating the lanterns to selling them, and sending them down the river was handled by Hiroshima resident volunteers.

Hiroshima’s floating lanterns were started as a memorial service by survivors in 1948.

The light of each lantern symbolises the light of life for each person who died on that fateful day.

In Japan, there has been a summer custom since ancient times known as Obon, in which the souls of ancestors are welcomed into homes and then sent back to the afterlife.

In some parts of Japan, spirit boat processions are held in which boats are made for souls to ride on as they are sent back to the Gods.

In the Aki region of western Hiroshima prefecture, people decorate graves with colorful lanterns during the Obon season.

It is said that the floating lanterns of Hiroshima are a combination of all these customs.

What I found most touching was that before the lighting ceremony commenced, and the lanterns were sent down the river, the lanterns were lit with flames from the ’embers of the atomic bomb’ that rest in Hoshino village in Fukuoka prefecture.

There was not a soul around without a moist eye.

The lanterns too seemed to transcend just the commemoration of those who had died, and became more of a message of lasting world peace, especially with so many of us foreign visitors gathered there.

Since 2015, an Online Floating Lantern event has also been held, mainly by young Japanese folks.

In 2020 and 2021, the in-person floating lantern event, in fact, was cancelled as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, but messages sent online from all over the world were floated down a virtual online river, and this was displayed on digital signages all over Hiroshima city on August 6, 2021. This year the event was both real and online.

I have had one more experience similar to the Hiroshima event.

Two years earlier I had been taken by Japanese friends to see the Akita Kanto Festival in the Tohoku region of northeast Japan during which kanto — long bamboo poles strung with lanterns — lit up the summer nights.

The kanto are likened by the Japanese to the ears of rice.

There were four sizes of kanto, ranging from small ones for children measuring about 5 metres to huge 12-meter-long poles strung with 46 lanterns. The biggest ones weighed about 50 kg.

In all, 250 long kanto bamboo poles strung with many lanterns lined up the street.

While traditional Japanese ohayashi music was played and shouts of ‘Dokkoisho, Dokkoisho‘ (heave ho) let fly through the air, the candle-lit lanterns swung about while the kanto, held up by the sashite (pole bearers), bent and swayed.

The sashite took turns to balance the heavy kanto on their hands, head, shoulders and backs.

The entire evening was surreal with a magical never-to-be forgotten impact.

As a self-anointed Nipponophile, I have always admired the Japanese sense of tradition.

More importantly their ability to amplify the symbolism attached to any event or happening.

The Hiroshima event is not just about the 10,000-odd lanterns that float down a river. It is about remembrance. It is about dignity. It is about respect. It is about love.

We too celebrated the Kargil Vijay Diwas on July 26.

Apart from military parades, some ceremonial bouquets, and some oft-repeated and oft-forwarded WhatsApp messages, nothing much happened.

Why can’t India emulate the Hiroshima Toro Nagashi?

Sandeep Goyal is managing director, Rediffusion.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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