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Lacquerware

漆器

Lacquerware is one of Japan’s best-known crafts. It is used to produce a wide variety of functional, decorative and ceremonial items from bento boxes to Buddhist sculptures.

The history of lacquering in Japan dates back to the Jōmon period (approx. 14,000—300 BCE); the earliest lacquerware excavated in Japan so far being burial accessories unearthed in the northern island of Hokkaido, dated at around 9,000 years old. Over the millennia, the time-consuming method of covering objects with urushi (derived from Japanese lacquer tree sap) has been developed into a high art form. Throughout Japan’s history, the culture of urushi has been embraced by different social classes to suit their needs, including the court nobility, samurai, temple monks, shrine priests and merchants; and a wide range of local varieties of lacquerware have developed. Poisonous until it dries, urushi is only handled by master craftsmen.

 

Rustic red

Negoro refers to rustic and simple lacquerware that has been coated with black lacquer (urushi) and then layered with a topcoat of red lacquer (urushi). Items often made using this technique include tables, trays and bowls. This lacquering style was originally applied to utensils used by monks in training at Negoro-ji, a Zen temple that prospered from the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE) to the Muromachi period (approx. 1336-1573 CE). Negoro lacquerware offers an ever-changing beauty. Over the years, as it is used, the red lacquer fades to gradually reveal the black lacquer beneath.

Regional styles

There are numerous styles of lacquerware throughout Japan. Different techniques can be used for the preparation and coating of the wooden bases to which lacquer (urushi) is applied, for example, as well as for adjusting the colour of the finished surface. All varieties have distinctive patterns refined to suit their intended utility. A range of soup bowls from various locations are shown here to give an insight into each region’s typical characteristics. Soup bowls have been chosen as a representative item of everyday life in Japan, although lacquer (urushi) is, of course, used for various craft items.

Natural beauty of wood

Yamanaka lacquerware has been made in the Yamanaka Onsen area of Ishikawa Prefecture since the late 1500s CE. In the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), as the Yamanaka hot springs flourished as a destination for relaxation, so did lacquerware production, as bowls, trays and toys were made to be sold to visitors.

This type of lacquerware celebrates the natural beauty of Japan’s native trees, such as zelkova and cherry. Items produced include bowls, saucers and the wood bases for tea ceremony utensils. Watch woodcarver Mukaide Shōichi and lacquer artist Morimoto Tsutomu turn blocks of wood into beautiful lacquerware bowls.

Experimental combinations

People tend to imagine that lacquerware are beautiful and luxurious craft items that are excessively delicate and prone to scratching. In fact, lacquer (urushi) can be applied to a wide range of materials and serves as a natural coating material or adhesive, providing excellent protection against water and corrosion. Besides aesthetic appreciation, lacquer is defined in this picture gallery in terms of its functions, achieved by experimental combinations of lacquer (urushi) with a variety of base materials.

CREDITS

Contributions: Japan Design Committee, Koizumi Makoto