Traditional Japanese Crafts: The Complete Guide to Japanese Lacquerware

From intricately-patterned pieces to simple, rustic designs, Japanese lacquerware (shikki) has evolved through the years and remains alive and well today. In this article, we will be delving into the splendid variety of designs that Japanese lacquerware has to offer, including the iconic Wajima-nuri and Yamanaka lacquerware. If you ever get the chance to see some fine Japanese lacquerware in person, be sure to hold it in your hands and experience its unique feel and beauty.

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Title image: Copyright: Ishikawa Prefectural Tourism League

The History of Japanese Lacquerware

”Shikki” is the Japanese word that describes the craft of painting paper or wooden items with “urushi.” “Urushi,” in turn, is the word for Japanese lacquer, made from tree resin, which not only provides a beautiful color and sheen, but also increases the durability of the items that it coats and can even be used as a glue. 

Urushi holds an esteemed place in Japanese crafts, and has a history that stretches back to the Jomon Period more than 2,500 years ago. It has played an important role in Japanese life, sometimes being used to create tableware, such as multi-tiered food boxes (jubakko), and at other times being used during construction of traditional buildings. Theories of its origin vary, but artifacts have been excavated from various places around the country, such as Fukui Prefecture’s Torihama Shell Mound or Hokkaido’s Kakinoshima Ruins. All feature a distinctive vermilion color, and due to the variation of objects discovered—from ornaments to dishes—we can surmise that lacquerware has been valued for its utility since ancient times.

As farming and fishing flourished over time, lacquer came to be used for many tools of the trade. As the uses for lacquer began to diversify, incorporating religious items and even the construction of buildings, the artistic craftsmanship of lacquerware also improved. Today, the finest examples of ornamental lacquerware are “Raden” and “Maki-e” lacquerware.

”Raden” refers to lacquerware or wood inlaid with thinly-shaved pieces of the pearlescent interior of the shells of abalone, pearl oysters, or green turbans. In the photo above, the rainbow-colored flowers of the plum tree are examples of Raden craftsmanship.

“Maki-e” refers to lacquerware that is decorated by applying gold or silver onto a finely-drawn design on the surface. The name derives from the word “maku,” which means “to sprinkle,” which describes the original method of sprinkling gold or silver powder onto the design—although nowadays other techniques, such as using gold and silver leaf, are also used. The Kanazawa lacquerware in the above photo is a particularly refined example of Maki-e. Other than the Raden flowers, all the other parts of the design are made with the Maki-e technique.

Although lacquerware had already become a staple part of Japanese life, its evolution into an elaborately-decorated craft came about thanks to the aristocracy, whose love for the craft led to an elevation of its status. Antique pieces remain highly valuable today, with some, such as the 12th century “Horaisan Maki-e Robe Box,” registered as Important Cultural Properties. The piece in question is currently at the Tokyo National Museum, and shouldn’t be missed when on display.

Additionally, after exhibitions at some of the World Fairs in Europe, Japanese lacquerware’s importance as a traditional Japanese craft came to be known throughout the rest of the world. Today, many National Treasure-grade lacquerware items can be found preserved in museums across the world, so go and experience the history held within the crafts for yourself!

The Characteristics of Japanese Lacquerware

The greatest attributes of lacquerware are its durability and water resistance, which are properties of the lacquer itself. Even if the lacquer grows thin or chips over time, it can be easily restored by simply applying more lacquer. Indeed, during the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), there were even lacquer craftsmen who would make rounds through town repairing people’s lacquerware. Today, however, various issues face the lacquer industry, including higher demand than can be met with the current supply of lacquer.

Japanese lacquerware primarily features elegantly-crafted “kuronuri” (black lacquer) or “shunuri” (vermilion lacquer). The glossy finish is thought of as the primary appeal, but lacquerware which has aged elegantly over time is also quite charming. In addition, various regions carry on their own unique traditions, making it quite enjoyable to compare the various styles. From the distinctive designs of Tsugaru-nuri lacquerware from Aomori Prefecture, to the dignified appearance of the thickly-lacquered Wajima-nuri lacquerware from Ishikawa Prefecture, each style of lacquerware gives off a different air that should certainly be experienced!

One of the lacquerware items most commonly seen in use today is the “jubako.” Jubako are square in shape and come with two, three, four, or even five tiers which stack together. These boxes are commonly used to serve traditional New Year’s food, called “osechi” in Japanese. “Ozoni,” another New Year’s food consisting of chewy mochi (rice cakes) in soup, is also traditionally served in a lacquerware bowl. 

Sadly, however, the use of lacquerware by normal households in everyday life has steadily decreased over the years and today, many people’s exposure to lacquerware is limited to meals at high-end restaurants.

Japanese Lacquerware Varieties

Wajima-nuri

The History of Wajima-nuri

Wajima-nuri is a type of Japanese lacquerware produced around Wajima, situated on the coast of the Sea of Japan in Ishikawa, a prefecture located in the northern part of mainland Japan. There are various theories about Wajima-nuri’s beginnings, but it is commonly believed that the craft began in the Muromachi Period (1394 - 1428), when a monk visiting from Negoro-ji Temple in Wakayama Prefecture crafted “wan” (bowls) for a temple called Juren-ji in Wajima. Lacquerware bowl fragments dated from the 15th century have also been excavated from ruins in the area, showing that lacquerware has been produced in the Wajima area since that time.

During the middle of the Edo Period (18-19th centuries), a technique of mixing lacquer with Wajima-made “jinoko” (refined, silica-rich clay powder) for use as a base coat was invented, and soon gained notoriety for the solid base layer that it can create. It was around the same time that Wajima-nuri’s iconic “chinkin” (patterns made with gold leaf) and “Maki-e” (patterns made with lacquer and gold or silver powder) designs were first devised. 

The middle of the Edo Period also hailed the opening of shipping routes on the Sea of Japan, causing the production of goods in the then-prominent port of Wajima to blossom. This in turn led to the spread of Wajimi-nuri throughout the country, and the development of an elaborate crafting process with more than 100 steps.

With the end of the Edo Period in 1868, the craft of lacquerware was dealt a blow when its customer base of feudal lords and noblemen disappeared. However, Wajima-nuri was spared from such troubles, as the customers of its craftsmen had long been wealthy farmers and merchants.

Out-of-work lacquer and Maki-e craftsmen who excelled at their craft flocked to Wajima, and the techniques of Maki-e continued to develop. Some of the famous master craftsmen of Wajima-nuri were active during the turn of the 20th century, including Sesshu Hashimoto, Sesshu Kurokawa, Sojiro Funakake, and Teiji Funakake.

Finally, in 1955, a craftsman by the name of Taiho Mae was designated a Living National Treasure. Following this, in 1975, the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry designated Wajima-nuri as a traditional Japanese craft, and two years later, Japanese lacquerware was designated an Intangible Cultural Property. Finally, in 1982, the tools used to craft Wajima-nuri were designated as a Tangible Cultural Property.

The Characteristics of Wajima-nuri

The Wajima-produced “jinoko” powder that is used to produce a solid base coat of lacquer is often cited as one of the characteristic features of Wajima-nuri. The powder is produced from high-quality clay, and when used for the base layer, allows for the creation of extra-strong lacquerware.

In addition, the process of crafting a Wajima-nuri piece involves more than 100 steps, including a technique of embedding pieces of fabric into the most fragile parts of the item and then putting lacquer over them to provide additional support. Thanks to these processes, the resulting lacquerware features increased durability, is easy to repair should it break, and can last for a very long time.

The beauty and elegance of Wajima-nuri, too, makes it among the most highly-regarded lacquerware in Japan. The characteristic designs are created either by inlaying gold into patterns etched into the base layer (called “chinkin”) or by using powdered gold or silver to paint designs onto the surface (called “Maki-e”). The chinkin method, specifically, is said to have started with Wajima-nuri, and the extravagant designs created with this technique particularly capture the attention.

The extremely high level of quality found in Wajima-nuri lies in the way that it is crafted. Craftsmen specialize in only one part of the production process, with a different craftsman handling each step, from the carving of the wood, to the lacquering of the base layer, to the polishing, to the final decoration. This specialization helps to maintain consistent quality, and the entire process is also overseen by a “nushiya,” a company that acts as a kind of “producer.” It is these features of specialization and the presence of a producer that supports the quality of Wajima-nuri.

Wajima-nuri Today

Between three to four metric tons of lacquer are used to produce lacquerware in Japan each year, of which only 5% is produced locally, with the rest being imported from China. With the help of the government, however, there is movement to change this reality, and efforts to cultivate lacquer trees in Wajima are underway.

A shortage of Wajima-nuri craftsmen was another issue facing the industry, but this has improved since the standard training period was reduced from seven to eight years down to just four years. Ishikawa Prefecture has also taken steps to cultivate an environment that fosters new craftsmen, including establishing the Prefectural Wajima-nuri Craft Training Institute, which now attracts young future craftsmen from across the country and operates on a scholarship system. 

Modern Wajima-nuri workshops and craftsmen are creating original ideas and adapting to the needs of the time. It’s now possible to find Wajima-nuri made with lacquer that is scratch-resistant and can withstand the use of spoons and forks or washing with dish soap and a sponge. The new Wajima-nuri is quite amazing!

Yamanaka Lacquerware

The History of Yamanaka Lacquerware

Yamanaka lacquerware (Yamanaka-shikki) is produced in Yamanaka, a town famous for its hot springs in Ishikawa Prefecture, in the northern part of central Japan. The craft started during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 - 1592) when a group of woodcarvers relocated to Yamanaka.
At first, the artisans sold wooden crafts like dishes as souvenirs for onsen visitors, but from the 18th century during the mid-Edo period (1603 - 1868), they started to improve the quality of their products by inviting skilled lacquerware artisans from Kyoto, Kanazawa, and Aizu. These artisans helped them further advance their lacquer and maki-e (lacquerware decorated with gold or silver powder) techniques, which led them to start creating other products, such as tea ware for Japanese tea ceremonies.
During this time, many techniques unique to Yamanaka lacquerware were developed, including “sensu-jibiki,” a woodworking design with the appearance of a thousand ridges; “shudame-nuri,” a design where lacquer is layered over a base painted a vermillion color; and “koma-nuri,” a design where numerous rings are painted in various colors to resemble a Japanese spinning top, called a “koma.” 

In 1913, a railway line called the Hokuriku Main Line opened in Ishikawa, making the procurement of raw materials much easier. Shipment of Yamanaka lacquerware to various parts of the country had been done on foot up to that point.
Furthermore, the relatively close distance from Kyoto and Osaka led to the production and export of low-cost, mass-produced lacquerware. However, production of traditional Yamanaka lacquerware also continued and was even purveyed to the Imperial Household Agency (a government agency that handled affairs related to the Imperial household) during the Taisho Period (1912 - 1926).
Up until then, the main material used for the craft was natural wood and resin, but from 1955, the use of synthetic resins made from plastic and urethane were adopted and used to make all sorts of items, including bridal gifts. After 1981, this became the most highly-produced type of lacquerware in the country, excluding Aizu lacquerware (Aizu-nuri).

Later, a craftsman named Ryozo Kawagita, who made dishes out of natural wood, was designated as a Living National Treasure and Yamanaka, blessed with many skilled woodcarvers, began providing unlacquered wood used for the aforementioned “Wajima-Nuri.”

The Characteristics of Yamanaka Lacquerware

Yamanaka lacquerware is unique in how wooden vessels are created, which involves the use of a lathe. Furthermore, how the extremely fine ridges on the surface of the natural wood of Yamanaka lacquerware are created is something else considered unmatched in the world of lacquerware. Additionally, Yamanaka lacquerware tea ware decorated with lavish gold and silver “maki-e” designs are highly regarded, among which the “natsume” (tea caddies) used to hold matcha powder are particularly prized.

The steps to make this lacquerware include creating the wooden vessel itself, coating it with lacquer, and then decorating it with gold or silver powder. The coating process is even split into multiple steps, including base coating and surface coating.
Ishikawa Prefecture is home to three production areas, each known best for one of the main steps in the lacquerware production process: kiji (wood vessels) from Yamanaka, nuri (lacquering) from Wajima, and maki-e (gold and silver decoration) from Kanazawa. However, it can be said that Yamanaka lacquerware, with its wooden vessels created on a lathe, is at the top in terms of quality of craftsmanship and production scale.

Using a lathe to create the wooden vessels is called “hiki” in Japanese, but particular techniques such as creating an extremely thin vessel, called “usubiki,” or other decorative lathing methods such as adding what appears to be a thousand decorative ridges to the surface are unique to Yamanaka lacquerware.
The production of the lacquerware requires wood to be milled into a round shape for bowls and also to be bent into various shapes, such as multi-tiered food boxes. Each process is performed by an experienced craftsman who specializes in the particular technique. 

Yamanaka Lacquerware Today

Yamanaka lacquerware, which incorporated the use of inexpensive plastics from early on, has cultivated demand from both domestic and international markets thanks to the richness of its designs and functionality.
To meet this demand, various areas around Ishikawa Prefecture’s Kaga City have set up production bases, and large-scale production has been established while still maintaining specialization at each step of the process.
Furthermore, effort has been poured into creating dishware and interior goods that meet the diverse lifestyles and tastes of the younger generation. This includes bridal gifts, the development of which has helped transform the area into Japan’s number one manufacturer of lacquerware.
However, recent years have seen a period of stagnation in sales, pointing to the fact that just because something is of good quality does not mean that it will sell. This has led the Yamanaka Lacquerware Cooperative Association to turn to online markets to try to sell the products overseas. 
This shift came after a Canadian YouTuber introduced Yamanaka lacquerware on their channel, sending sales soaring in Canada. The Yamanaka Lacquerware Cooperative Association has since invited digital marketing professionals to hold seminars for producers to make sure they can catch up to the digital age.
While proactively targeting the international market, including the French market which is very open to Japanese traditional crafts, producers are also experimenting with other ways to stimulate the lacquerware business, such as using eco-friendly biomass resin.

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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