Japanese lacquerware

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Writing lacquer box by Ogata Kōrin, Edo period (National Treasure)

Lacquerware (漆器, shiki) is a Japanese craft with a wide range of fine and decorative arts, as lacquer has been used in urushi-e, prints, and on a wide variety of objects from Buddha statues to bento boxes for food.

A number of terms are used in Japanese to refer to lacquerware. Shikki (漆器) means "lacquer ware" in the most literal sense, while nurimono (塗物) means "coated things", and urushi-nuri (漆塗) means "lacquer coating."[1]

The history of lacquerware in Japan reaches back to the Jōmon period.

The sap of the lacquer tree, today bearing the technical description of "urushiol-based lacquer," has traditionally been used in Japan. As the substance is poisonous to the touch until it dries, the creation of lacquerware has long been practiced only by skilled dedicated artisans.


Detailed view of a lacquer panel of the Tamamushi Shrine from the Asuka period, 7th century (National Treasure)

Lacquer was used in Japan as early as 5000 BCE, during the Jōmon period. Evidence for the earliest lacquerware was discovered at the Kakinoshima "B" Excavation Site in Hokkaido.[2] These objects were discovered in a pit grave dating from the first half of the Initial Jomon period (approx. 7,000 years ago).[3]

Lacquering technology may have been invented by the Jomon. They learned to refine urushi (poison oak sap) – the process taking several months. Iron oxide (colcothar) and cinnabar (mercury sulfide) were used for producing red lacquer.[4]

Lacquer was used both on pottery, and on different types of wooden items. In some cases, burial clothes for the dead were also lacquered.[5]

Many lacquered objects have turned up during the Early Jomon period; this indicates that this was an established part of Jomon culture.[6]

Experts are divided on whether Jomon lacquer was derived from Chinese techniques, or invented independently. For example, Mark Hudson believes that “Jomon lacquer technology was developed independently in Japan rather than being introduced from China as once believed”.[7][8]

One of the most outstanding lacquer objects is the Tamamushi Shrine from middle of the seventh century AD. The shrine is made of lacquered hinoki or Japanese cypress and camphor wood, both native species. While commonly referred to as urushi, since the Meiji period some scholars have argued instead that the paintings employ the technique known as mitsuda-e, an early type of oil painting, using perilla (shiso) oil with litharge as a desiccant.

Many traditional crafts and industrial arts produced throughout Japanese history were initially influenced by China, and afterward experienced various native stylistic influences and innovations over the centuries. The Edo period (1603–1868) saw an increase in the focused cultivation of lacquer trees and the development of the techniques used. In the 18th century colored lacquers came into wider use. One of the most outstanding masters of lacquer was Ogata Kōrin. The city of Kanazawa is known for its lacquerware.

The export of lacquer to the west lead to it being historically referred to as Japan, analogous to China for Chinese ceramics.

Techniques and processes[edit]

Closeup of the chinkin lacquer method, depicting needles of a pine tree

As in other countries where lacquerware has traditionally been produced, the process is fundamentally quite basic. An object is formed from wood, sometimes leather, paper, or basketry. Lacquer is applied to seal and protect the object, and then decoration is added. Generally, three coats (undercoat, middle-coat, and final coat) are used, the final coat sometimes being clear rather than black lacquer, in order to allow decorations to show through.

Alongside the red and black lacquers, it is common to see the use of inlay, often seashells or similar materials, as well as mica or other materials. The application of gold powder is known as maki-e, and is a very common decorative element.

A few examples of traditional techniques follow:

  • Ikkanbari (一閑張), also known as harinuki (張貫) is one common technique used to make tea wares. Invented by Hiki Ikkan in the early 17th century, the process involves the application of layers of lacquer to paper shaped in a mold.
  • Iro-urushi (色漆), literally "color lacquer", was created by adding pigments to clear lacquer. The limits of natural pigments allowed only five colors (red, black, yellow, green and brown) to be used up until the 19th century, when various innovations appeared, along with the later introduction of Western artificial pigments. Shibata Zeshin was a major innovator in this field, using not only color but also other substances mixed in with his lacquer to achieve a wide variety of effects, including the simulated appearance of precious metals, which were heavily restricted from artistic use at the time due to government concerns over excessive extravagance.
  • Shunkei-nuri (春慶塗), Shunkei lacquerware; it is created using transparent lacquer on yellow- or red-stained wood, so that the natural wood grain can be seen (similar to 'Kuroye Nuri' in this respect). The name is derived from the inventor who was active in Sakai during the reign of the Emperor Go-Kameyama (1368-1392). This method became popular in the 17th century in Takayama, Hida province. Many articles for use in tea-drinking were manufactured using this technique.[9]
  • Urushi-hanga(漆絵版画), developed by Hakuo Iriyama, producing a printing plate from dry lacquer, that was carved and finally used like a block print but instead of traditional printing colors with pigmented lacquer.

Regional forms[edit]

Ewer in negoro style. The red lacquer wears away gradually and irregularly with use, producing the effect of natural aging for which these pieces are highly appreciated.

As with most traditional arts, variations emerged over time as individual centers of production developed their own unique techniques and styles.

  • Aizu wares developed in the late 16th century, and saw a peak in their production in the Meiji period. One Aizu technique is that of etching designs or images into the surface of the lacquer, and then filling in the space with gold or other materials. Other techniques distinctive of Aizu involve the burnishing of various clays and primers in the process.
  • Jōhana wares are generally known for their use of maki-e and mitsuda-e (gold and lead decoration, respectively), and for the use of white or whitish lacquer.
  • Negoro lacquerwares were produced at the Negoro-ji temple complex in Izumi province. The red layers of lacquer on Negoro wares are intended to gradually wear away with use, revealing the black lacquer underneath.[10] This effect has since been copied and emulated elsewhere.
  • Ryukyuan lacquerware, though frequently included among types of Japanese lacquer, actually developed largely independently, with strong influences from China and Southeast Asia, as the Ryukyu Islands did not come under Japanese control until 1609.
  • Tsugaru wares feature a technique supposedly developed by Ikeda Gentarō at the end of the 17th century; multiple layers of different colored lacquers are used to create a colorful mottled effect.
  • Wakasa wares are made using a variety of colors, and the inclusion of eggshells, rice chaff, or other materials in the base coats. Silver or gold foil is used as well, and sealed under a layer of transparent lacquer.
  • Wajima-nuri from Wajima, Kanazawa

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Urushi-nuri at JAANUS - Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System
  2. ^ Hokkaido's Minamikayabe Town, Kakinoshima Site B (北海道の南茅部町の垣ノ島B遺跡)
  3. ^ Hakodate City, Hokkaido: Historic Kakinoshima Site jomon-japan.jp
  4. ^ Jomon crafts and what they were for heritageofjapan.wordpress.com
  5. ^ Jomon crafts and what they were for heritageofjapan.wordpress.com
  6. ^ Jomon crafts and what they were for heritageofjapan.wordpress.com
  7. ^ Sannai Maruyama: A New View of Prehistoric Japan, Mark Hudson, Asia-Pacific Magazine, No. 2 May 1996 pp. 47-48.
  8. ^ Jomon crafts and what they were for heritageofjapan.wordpress.com
  9. ^ J J Quin, The Lacquer Industry of Japan. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan - 1881, p.11
  10. ^ https://vimeo.com/186449805


External links[edit]

Media related to Lacquerware of Japan at Wikimedia Commons