The lustrous charm of urushi
by Alan J. Wiren
The lacquer tree did not grow in the Western world when the Europeans began to explore the East. They had no way of duplicating the durability and luster of the objects that they encountered in Japan, and so admired them as to make them the island nation's namesake. Ironically, the word "japanning" was coined not to refer to the production of fine lacquerware with traditional, Japanese materials and techniques. It meant, instead, the treatment of an object with materials and techniques designed in European countries to imitate genuine "japan".
Quality of Japanese lacquerware
The imitations were good, but they could never match the quality of Japanese lacquerware. The key ingredient was missing. Even among that of other Asian countries, Japanese lacquerware is prized because Japan's lacquer contains the highest proportion of the one substance that gives lacquerware its coveted qualities. It is the same chemical found in poison oak and poison ivy that is a powerful irritant to most people's skin. Worldwide, it is called urushiol - a borrowing from Japanese, whose word for lacquer is urushi.
The value of the highly toxic sap of the lacquer tree has been known in Japan since prehistoric times. It was used as an adhesive to mend pottery and fix arrowheads to their shafts. Archeologists in Japan have found lacquered objects such as combs and pendants over six thousand years old. But the value of a piece of lacquerware only begins with the materials used to make it. A high quality piece of lacquerware requires the skills of several different artists, and up to ten years, to complete.
Lacquer can be applied to many materials including silk, plastic, and metal (where it protects very effectively against rust); but it is most commonly used on wood. There are a great many styles of Japanese lacquerware, each with its own history and esthetic, to choose from. The divergence among them begins at the first stages with the selection of the base material and color.
Lacquer itself is clear, and one style adds no pigment to it at all, employing the color and grain of the wood as part of the design. The most common base colors for lacquer ware are black and red. One style begins by coloring the base black, covering it with coats of red, then partially polishing the upper coats away, so that the black undercoat shows through in places, giving the impression of a worn, utilitarian object.
How many coats of lacquer to apply and of what quality is the next decision that determines the value of a piece. The wooden core, which has already gone through a long process of shaping and seasoning to make it a stable base, is first impregnated with raw lacquer to make it waterproof and ready to accept subsequent coats of increasingly refined lacquer.
Each coat must harden before it is polished and the next coat applied. The word "drying" is not really appropriate for this phase in the production of lacquerware. A piece with a fresh coat of lacquer is placed in a specially controlled environment of high temperature and humidity. It remains there from several hours to several days and, during that time, chemical processes takes place that cause the lacquer to harden, and become virtually harmless to the skin, while maintaining a high moisture content.
After hardening, each coat is polished using abrasives ranging from powdered stone to crushed flower petals. When the object has taken on a silken smoothness and high luster it is ready for decoration. Here, again, there are a multitude of choices. The simplest, of course, is to add no decoration at all that will interfere with the elegance of the piece's form. Some styles add designs or pictures by painting the surface with colored lacquers.
Color may be added to complement a relief carved into the base before any lacquer was applied. A design may be cut into the hardened layers of lacquer and then filled with color or precious metal. In a style called maki-e, all or part of an illustration is created by applying gold, silver, tin, or mother of pearl in leaf, flake, or powder form. The material is sprinkled over a figure while it is still tacky after being painted in colored lacquer over the background.
Some of the techniques for decoration are lost today. Fewer craftspeople can invest the time required to create the multiply layered designs that have become rare treasures. In some cases the materials needed can no longer be had, such as the hair of river rats for making certain kinds of urushi brushes.
The final step in making a piece of lacquerware is to apply and polish the top clear lacquer coats. There is a Japanese saying, "Urushi should be applied in a boat at sea," which refers to this last step. It is crucial that not a speck of dust should be allowed to touch the surface as the last coats of lacquer are applied and hardened.
Even after the final coats have hardened, lacquerware continues to interact with its environment. If you take your lacquerware to a climate less humid than Japan's, storing it next to an uncovered glass of water will preserve its moisture content. Minimizing its exposure to light will also help to prevent the surface from discoloring.
Buying Japanese lacquerware
There are many places where you can find lacquerware on display, and for sale, in Japan. The town of Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture is credited with producing some of the highest quality products.
A number of sources are listed at this Japanese lacquerware-related website. (Scroll to the far right to find the "English" button.) At the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto, there is a collection of lacquerware objects made with techniques that are no longer possible today, and a detailed description of the different methods for creating maki-e designs, both in poster form and on video tape.
Though the museum is small (enough to fully appreciate within an hour) it regularly hosts special exhibitions of rare and beautiful lacquerware along with its permanent collection, and there is a gift shop where lacquered objects can be had at reasonable prices.
The Gallery of Kyoto Traditional Arts and Crafts displays creatively designed, as well as more traditional, lacquerware produced by local artisans. You can also watch students creating new works in one of the museum's galleries. Several shops in Kyoto, including some that make lacquerware, cooperate with the museum by giving guests an introductory experience in their craft. Visit the Gallery of Kyoto Traditional Arts and Crafts website to make a reservation.
High quality goods from Japan at GoodsFromJapan.com
Other Japan articles by Alan Wiren
'To the Stronger Spirit': Nanzenji Temple Complex, Kyoto