The many and varied traditional handicrafts of Japan are officially recognised and protected. Some enjoy status as meibutsu, or regional specialties. Each craft demands a set of specialized skills. Textile crafts, for example, include silk, hemp, and cotton, woven (after spinning and dyeing) in forms from timeless folk designs to complex court patterns. Village crafts that evolved from ancient folk traditions also continued in weaving and indigo dyeing in Hokkaidō by the Ainu people, whose distinctive designs have prehistoric prototypes, and by other remote farming families in northern Japan.
Silk-weaving families can be traced to the 15th century in the famous Nishijin weaving center of Kyoto, where elegant fabrics worn by the emperor and the aristocracy were produced. In the 17th century, designs on textiles were applied using stencils and rice paste, in the yuzen or paste-resist method of dyeing. The yuzen method provided an imitation of aristocratic brocades, which were forbidden to commoners by sumptuary laws.
Moriguchi Kako of Kyoto has continued to create works of art in his yuzen-dyed kimonos, which were so sought after that the contemporary fashion industry designed an industrial method to copy them for use on Western-style clothing. Famous designers, such as Hanae Mori, borrowed extensively from kimono patterns for their couturier collections. By the late 1980s, an elegant, handwoven, dyed kimono had become extremely costly, running to US$25,000 for a formal garment. In Okinawa the famous yuzen-dyeing method was especially effective where it was produced in the bingata stencil-dyeing techniques, which produced exquisitely colored, striking designs as artistic national treasures.
Birodo yuzen, or yuzen birodo, describes velvet dyed and painted using the yuzen process where the pile is cut away in deep and light layers, creating a painterly effect of light and shade. The technique first appeared in the nineteenth century and was described in 1905 by Basil Hall Chamberlain. Although Chamberlain describes the technique under the heading of embroidery, birodo yuzen is not actually embroidered, but uses a cut-velvet technique to reproduce paintings and photographs. Although technically a form of velvet painting, birodo yuzen works are not like the Western and Middle-Eastern velvet paintings which use velvet as a canvas.
Lacquer was invented in Asia, and its use in Japan can be traced to prehistoric finds. Lacquer ware is most often made from wooden objects, which receive multiple layers of refined lac juices, each of which must dry before the next is applied. These layers make a tough skin impervious to water damage and to resist breakage, providing lightweight, easy-to-clean utensils of every sort. The decoration on such lacquers, whether carved through different colored layers or in surface designs, applied with gold or inlaid with precious substances, has been a prized art form since the Nara period (A.D. 710-94). (See also Lacquerware.)
Papermaking is another contribution of Asian civilization; the Japanese art of making paper from the mulberry plant (called "Washi") is thought to have begun in the 6th century A.D. Dyeing paper with a wide variety of hues and decorating it with designs became a major preoccupation of the Heian court, and the enjoyment of beautiful paper and its use has continued thereafter, with some modern adaptations. The traditionally made paper called Izumo (after the shrine area where it is made) was especially desired for fusuma (sliding panels) decoration, artists' papers, and elegant letter paper. Some printmakers have their own logo made into their papers, and since the Meiji period, another special application has been Western marbleized end papers (made by the Atelier Miura in Tokyo).
Metalwork is epitomized in the production of the Japanese sword, of extremely high quality. These swords originated before the 1st century B.C. and reached their height of popularity as the chief possession of warlords and samurai. The production of a sword has retained something of the religious quality it once had in embodying the soul of the samurai and the martial spirit of Japan. For many Japanese, the sword, one of the "three jewels" of the nation, remained a potent symbol; possessors would treasure a sword and it would be maintained within the family, its loss signifying their ruin.
There are many traditional handicrafts which involve fibre arts, one of them being the ancient craft of temari. Temari means "hand ball" in Japanese. It is a folk craft born in ancient Japan from the desire to amuse and entertain children with a toy hand ball.
Today, the lovely thread-wrapped temari balls are given as tokens of good luck and they are displayed and enjoyed as works of art. As Buddhist missionaries traveled east from India through China via the Korean peninsula to Japan, they spread not only religious beliefs but their culture as well. Temari is said to have its origins from Kemari (football), brought to Japan from China about 1400 years ago. Making temari grew as a pastime for noble women in the early part of the Edo Period (1600–1868). Maids of the court made temari balls for princesses. They would sit on the floor with the children, rolling a temari between them. Bouncing and tossing games followed. Over the years, region by region, the women of Japan explored the craft and improved it. They added noisemakers to the inside to delight the ear. They added Japanese designs and copied the colors of nature around them, and they used the brilliant colors of kimono silk to stitch eye-catching patterns.
Amigurumi is the art of knitting or crocheting small stuffed animals and anthropomorphic creatures. Amigurumi are typically cute animals (such as bears, rabbits, cats, dogs, etc.), but can include inanimate objects endowed with anthropomorphic features. Amigurumi can be either knitted or crocheted. In recent years crocheted amigurumi are more popular and more commonly seen.
- This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies. – Japan
- Traditional Crafts of Japan. Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries. Accessed November 22, 2010.
- "Takeuchi Seiho (after), Moon over Venice, a textile wall hanging". British Museum. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
- Chamberlain, Basil Hall (1905 (republished 28 February 2009)). Things Japanese : being notes on various subjects connected with Japan for the use of travellers and others. J. Murray, London (republished by Echo Press, 2009). ISBN 9781848301818.
- The list of Traditional Japanese Handicrafts made in Ichikawa prefecture