- 日本の漆の歴史と伝統 -
The History and the Characteristics of
Urushi Lacquerware 漆器
Deep and shiny luster of black or red, sometimes adorned with a gold leaf or mother-of-pearl inlay, you may have encountered beautifully decorated urushi lacquered chests or boxes or tableware in museums or as in historical treasures from the East.
Japanese lacquerware, referred to as "japan" in the old days, was introduced to the West by the Portuguese in the16th century and widely spread in the 17th century by the Dutch East India Company, and immediately enthralled royalty and nobility.
[Important cultural property] Portable Shrine Depicting Birds and Flowers in Maki-e Lacquer
(花鳥蒔絵螺鈿聖龕) Azuchi-Momoyama period, 16th century, Kyushu National Museum
(The Christianity Painting is made in Europe and placed in the shrine afterwards)
From the Official Explanation (portion);
".....This shrine recently returned to Japan from Europe, and is currently the largest of its kind in the nation. It is topped by a sloping karahafu gable, and has double doors in front that open to reveal the sacred painting inside. Both the outer and inner faces of both doors are decorated extensively in gold and silver maki-e lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlay. Each face features geometric medallions framing arabesque, bird, and flower motifs. It houses an oil painting on a bronze plaque, depicting the Virgin Mary watching over a sleeping baby Jesus, with Saint Joseph on her right. To her left is St. John, holding a cross in his right hand and placing his left index finger over his mouth. The Latin inscription at the bottom of the painting reads, “Ego dormio et cor meum vigilat” (I sleep, but my mind is awake). This work, which combines excellent lacquer techniques with lavish decorations, serves as a fine example of nanban lacquerware, which in itself paints a picture of international exchange during the European Age of Discovery."
For thousands of years, Japanese lacquer; urushi(漆), which is the sap extracted from urushi tree, has been used as a protective coating material or an adhesive to produce holy ceremonial ornaments, works of art, and utilitarian objects. In fact, the oldest urushi lacquered ornaments discovered in Japan (Kakinoshima B ruins in Hokkaido) dates back to 7000 BC, during the Jomon period, and they are the world’s oldest urushi lacquer objects that had been found until today.
The beauty and the luster are not the only appeals of urushi lacquer. Urushi is one of the most durable natural lacquers. It comes from the sap of the urushi tree (rhus verniciflua), which grows mainly in East Asia. The extraction of the sap uses and maximizes the natural vitality of the urushi tree. The urushi tree creates the sap to cure oneself when the tree is damaged. Therefore, it has many excellent characteristics, starting from its unique drying process caused by humidity, showing great adhesion strength onto many substances creating great hardness with durability if once dried. Urushi lacquer is resistant to water, acids, alkali, alcohol, and heat. It also has antibacterial effects and anti-insects effects and the people from ancient knew its characteristics.
Therefore urushi lacquer had been applied to many important things from the past, such as religious and ceremonial ornaments, Buddha, armor goods, wooden structures and ceilings and floors of temples and shrines, tableware and furniture, and so on. We Japanese had been living in the world surrounded by the urushi lacquer. In this era, you still will be able to see the most traditional Japanese values in the traditional wedding ceremony.
Traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. The bride is having sake before the god.
Sake cup (sakazuki) and sake vessel are lacquerware.
photo from 写真AC taken by yagitoki
Traditionally, urushi lacquerware sakazuki (sake cup) is used.
photo from 写真AC taken by kkphoto
To make lacquerware as tableware, urushi will be applied onto, most of the time, wood materials, and in some cases, some form of naturally based materials like cloth or paper formed into shapes using molds. With repeated multiprocess of urushi lacquer coating, drying, and polishing will create a durable and beautiful surface you see as Japanese lacquerware. For an example, Wajima lacquerware (Made in Wajima-City, Ishikawa Pref. ) goes through between 75 to 130 processes (by hand) before it is complete as one of the most durable lacquerwares in Japan.
(You will find a comprehensive guide of Japanese lacquerware here;
Using urushi as an adhesive, decorating technique such as maki-e (sprinkled application of gold or silver powder/plate) or raden (mother-of-pearl inlay). Urushi decorating techniques reached the height of beauty and sophistication in the Edo period in the 18th century.
Today, we can enjoy the fruit of superb craftsmanship cultivated through our long history of urushi in our daily lives. We hope you would enjoy the beauty, the sophistication behind the Japanese lacquerware and its tradition.
What is Urushi? 漆
Urushi lacquer is a natural sap from the urushi tree. The Urushi sap is a curing medium of the tree itself while the tree is harmed. Therefore, the Urushi sap has many outstanding characteristics for protection. There are no synthetic urushi in the world, or to say urushiol (main component or urushi) can not be made synthetically.
Only about 200 ml (one cup) of the Urushi sap could be collected from an Urushi tree of 15years of age, and that's it. The tree will be mostly cut down after the sap is collected in Japan, for a new tree to be planted.
By cultivating many many urushi trees, the sap is collected, gathered and refined to be used as urushi lacquer. The sap collection is a total work of hands by Urushi sap collector, who is becoming extremely rare in Japan.
By material composition, in the case of Japanese raw urushi, it is composed of urushiol (60–65 wt%), water (25–30 wt%), plant gums (5–7 wt%), and enzymatic laccase(0.2 wt%). Urushiol is basically an organic oil. The composition differs from where the tree grew or when or how it is tapped. The more urushiol is contained the better it is as urushi lacquer.
The raw urushi is used, after filtering wood scraps and contaminations, to adhere and protect for instance wood. It is said that the protection employed by the urushi is at the maximum when used in a raw state. Fuki-urushi (applied and wiped urushi) uses this raw urushi.
On the other hand, refining raw urushi goes through two major processes, stirring (called Nayashi) and water content evaporation and concentration to about 3 wt% (called Kurome). This will make the urushi more transparent as lacquer and creates a higher gloss when applied. These are very important processes for an urushi to become a quality lacquer for lacquerware.
In order to further create aesthetical characteristics and apply urushi on various things to have desired effects as a lacquer, many natural substances are added to refined urushi. For example, diatomite for durability enhancements, rice or tofu (soybean protein) for further viscosity and adhesion, or iron hydroxide for black color, ferric oxide for red color, and many more.
The hardening process of urushi lacquer is unique due to its natural process. With the presence of high humidity (70-80% RH), and warm temperature (20-25 degC), oxidation of urushiol catalyzed by laccase causes urushiol to be polymerized, like plastic. Therefore the film formed is very hard and durable and resistant to water, acids, alkali, alcohol, and heat. Urushi itself also is a strong adhesive, providing strong adhesion strength to many different materials, such as wood, metal, ceramics, leather (dear skin), stone, etc. On top of it, urushi has a functional effect such as a strong antibacterial effect and the anti-insects effect that will last even after it is applied and dried.
Urushi is not tolerant only to UV exposure. However, it is said that urushi lacquer is the best natural coating material ever.
Urushi tree after urushi sap has been collected (Ibaragi, Japan)
Cut down urushi tree after urushi sap has been collected for the season of five months (Ibaragi, Japan)
Traditional urushi refining process "Kurome" by hand under the sun.
It is to evaporate water content from about 30% to 3 wt%.
Natural urushi lacquer for base coat use.
(Courtesy of Wajimaya Zen-ni )
The intermediate polishing process of a rectangular plate
(Courtesy of Wajimaya Zen-ni )
The middle coating process of a small bowl
(Courtesy of Wajimaya Zen-ni )
Cultural Recognition of Lacquerwork In Japan
Lacquerwork as an Important
Intangible Cultural Properties
Japanese government recognizes and designates the most important Japanese cultural properties for those tangible, as “National Treasures” or “Important Cultural Properties” and those intangible, as “Important Intangible Cultural Properties”. They are the highest regarded historical cultural assets that Japan possesses.
(You will find a definitional overview of the Cultural Properties by the government here; https://www.bunka.go.jp/english/policy/cultural_properties/introduction/overview/)
Toiletry Case with Cart Wheels in Stream (片輪車蒔絵螺鈿手箱) 12th Century “National Treasure”
(Tokyo National Museum)
There are many Japanese lacquerwares from our history that are designated as the National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties such as “Toiletry Case with Cart Wheels in Stream (Tokyo National Museum)” from the Heian period (12th century).
The techniques and the skills to make Japanese lacquerware that is inherited as lacquerwork is designated as Important Intangible Cultural Properties (IICP) of Craft Techniques category.
Currently, lacquerwork is one of the seven areas of the IICP Craft Techniques that holds its recognition. Those seven areas are Ceramics, Textile weaving, and dyeing, Metalwork, Woodwork and Bamboo work, Doll making, Papermaking, and Lacquerwork.
Within IICP Craft Techniques recognition, there are 16 “Collective” or ”Group” recognition and 59 “Individual” recognition (as of April 2019). Individual recognition is awarded to an actual master of skilled individuals so they are called “the Living National Treasure” in a common term.
Among the total of 59 individual Living National Treasures in the area of the Craft Techniques, 11 individuals are from the lacquerwork area. From this, you understand how lacquerwork possesses different highly skills with respect to the skills. Four out of 11 individual lacquerwork Living National Treasures have been working in Wajima or working for Wajima-nuri.
Two out of 16 Collective or Group IICP Craft Techniques recognition, are from the lacquerwork. The Wajima-nuri (lacquerwork) holds this Collective IICP recognition since 1977 and in 2017 the Tsugaru-nuri(lacquerwork) was added, and as a whole, these are the only two recognized areas of all the lacquerworks made in Japan (among more than 23 areas that produce lacquerware).
From this fact, you could sense that the Wajima lacquerwork skill is considered as one of the highest and valuable lacquerwork skills thus achieving respect among all the lacquerworks in Japan.
Urushi, A Valuable Asset 漆
Urushi sap is a natural resin by its nature. The Urushi sap is a curing aid medium of the tree itself while the tree is harmed. Therefore, the Urushi sap has many outstanding characteristics for protections. Only about 200 ml (one cup) of the Urushi sap could be collected from an Urushi tree of 10 to 15years of age, and that's it. The tree will be mostly cut down after the sap is collected, for a new tree to be planted.
Urushi sap collection in Japan
All the urushi production, which is to collect sap, is all made by specially trained skilled craftsmen. (This not only in Japan but also in China and Southeast Asia) There are no other ways to collect the urushi sap from each and every individually unique trees.
Here the typical urushi sap collection in Japan is shown by Mr.Gaku Hirai, a trained urushi sap collector. He is collecting urushi from the urushi tree in Hitachi-Ohmiya City, Ibaragi-Pref.
Urushi tree being groove cut using special urushi kanna (knife)
The season for urushi sap collection is from around the end of May to end of October or early November depending on the area. In the season, the sap is collected every 4 to 5 days so that the urushi tree can restore strength from the harm made by the groove cut and generate urushi sap again.
Urushi tree being groove cut slightly slanted for efficient collection of urushi sap
The depth of the groove is the most important factor to produce quality urushi. Since if it is too shallow the sap would not come out and if it is too deep you will threaten the vitality of the urushi tree.
Urushi sap will ooze out a couple of minutes after the cut
Urushi sap collection using special urushi spatula
Every drop of urushi sap is collected swiftly into the urushi bucket
Urushi is tapped by carving the bark of the urushi tree with horizontal long groove and let the tree yield clear to milky-white sap. It takes at least 10 years, preferably 15 years for an urushi tree to grow big enough to be tapped.
A skilled urushi collector will tap the urushi trees from June to October and collect drops of the sap one by one. Normally each urushi tree being tapped will have three days before next taps are made during the season and normally the tree will be cut down after that one season harvest of the urushi sap. The urushi tree yields only about 100 to 200 grams of raw urushi sap in its whole lifetime, which makes it a very precious and expensive substance.
The urushi could only be collected by the hands of a skilled urushi collector. There is no machinery to collect the urushi sap. The required skill, knowledge, and decision making to collect fine urushi sap are very high and complex. Since each tree is different, you need to understand how the condition of each tree is.
To tap the urushi, you need to take many things into account; the angle of each trunk of the tree, the direction of the sun, the thickness of the bark on each position you tap, how vigor the tree is due to the recent damage you gave, recent weather and so on. If you groove too deep and too long, you will kill the tree and your yield will go down, if you groove too little, you may not kill the tree but the results are the same. If your tapping angle of the groove is not right, you lose the sap.
Four days is the mimimum interval for tapping a tree. Urushi tree needs three days to produce the urushi. So the urushi collector will come to the tree every four days. The skilled collector may tap about 60 to 100 trees per day, depending on the places. So in theory, you need at least 60 x 4 = 240 new trees per season for a collector to efficiently collect the urushi sap in the season. The collector will collect in total 240(trees) x 150(grams/tree) = 36 (kgs) of raw urushi per season of five months full-time work without weekends. (tapping is not done on a rainy day) You need at least 10 years for an urushi tree before being tapped. Therefore, you constantly need at least 240 x 10 years = 2400 urushi trees for the urushi collector to sustain his work.
Traditionally urushi trees have been cultivated in the steepest mountains where the farming cannot be made. (Recent urushi tree cultivation are made on moderate hills for preservation purpose) Urushi tree yields the best sap in the highest season in summer. Therefore Urushi collection had been one of the toughest occupations in Japan.
Facts about the Urushi lacquer used in Japan
The production volume of the Japanese raw natural urushi lacquer in Japan in total were: 1,845 kgs (2018) or 1,045 kgs (2013). It was only a 4.9% (2018) or 2.6% (2013) share of the total raw natural urushi lacquer consumed in Japan of 37,724 kgs (2018) or 40,542 kgs (2013). The rest 95.1% (2018) or 97.4%(2013) were imported raw natural urushi lacquer. The importing countries in the case of 2013 were; China(89.2%), Thailand(5.7%) & Myanmar(2.5%) that filled 97.4% of raw natural urushi lacquer consumed in Japan. (Numbers are from the government statistics). From our history, it is said that the import of raw natural urushi lacquer from China dates back to the Edo period (1603 - 1868).
The Chinese natural urushi lacquer has almost the same material composition as the Japanese natural urushi lacquer, but it is said that the Japanese urushi lacquer has higher gloss and luster with higher hardness when it is applied, dried and polished, compared to the Chinese urushi lacquer, therefore the aesthetical beauty will differ when used on surface. On the other hand, the cost of the Chinese natural urushi lacquer is one-tenth to one-fifth of that of the Japanese one. Therefore, even the highest quality Japanese lacquerware we provide uses the Japanese natural urushi lacquer on the top-coat of the product. The bottom-coat or the middle-coat uses the Chinese natural urushi lacquer, where the aesthetic quality of the lacquer will not be a problem.
You may have understood how valuable the urushi is and the efforts behind to create genuine lacquerware. We are certain that your interest in Japanese lacquerware will help preserve the urushi collection in Asia.
Areas in Japan that Our Lacquerwares are Made
Our Area Brands and Locations in Japan
- Wajima-city Ishikawa
- Kaga-city Ishikawa
- Hida Shunkei
- Takayama-city Gifu
- Sabae-city Fukui
Currently, the products that we carry are from the Hokuriku (Central Northern Areas of Honshu Main Island)