Lacquer (Urushi)

Just as ceramic works may be called ‘china’ in English, the technique of lacquering in Britain was known as ‘japanning’. As this name suggests, the tradition of creating finely crafted lacquer ware has long been associated with Japan.
From archaeological excavations, lacquer has been found to have to been used in Japan in the Jomon period (c 10000 – c 300 BCE) and ranks as one of the most distinctive achievements of Japanese crafts. Prepared from the toxic sap of the lacquer tree (urushi; Toxicodendron verniciflua) extant throughout East Asia, it is one of the most durable natural adhesives and varnishes known. Penetrating and sealing porous surfaces, its application is used to increase the utility of materials such as wood, bamboo, textiles and paper as well as coating the interiors of temples and shrines.
The decorative appeal of lacquer is also greatly admired with both opaque or highly polished, lustrous finishes. As a result of numerous separate applications of lacquer, the surface veneer can be thick enough to allow it to be incised or carved.

Wajima and Wajima Lacquer ware

Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture lies at the tip of the Noto Peninsula which juts into the Sea of Japan. It is said the city’s name derives from when Japan was referred to as ‘Wa’ by the neighbouring peoples of China and Korea. Centuries ago, a Chinese ambassador, lost at sea, landed on the peninsula naming it ‘Wa no shima’, or ‘Island of Wa’ and since then, Wajima has been known as a centre of excellence in the production of lacquer ware throughout East Asia.

Lacquer ware from Wajima (Wajima-nuri in Japanese) has a reputation throughout Japan for its high quality. It is both extremely hard-wearing and delicately finished. Pieces are individually produced by expert craftsmen by hand. Many layers of lacquer (sometimes up to 124) are painted onto a wooden core. Wajima lacquer ware uses a technique that is unique to the area, mixing a finely powdered mineral, jinoko, in the early stages of production. This adds extra durability. The initial layers are then coated with yet more, finer layers of lacquer, and then polished to create a luster which is, in turn, often decorated with designs of gold and other precious metals.

Maki-e and Chinkin

There are two methods of lacquer decorations commonly found in Wajima lacquer ware.
Maki-e (literally ‘sprinkled picture’) is a term to describe the technique of employing sprinkled metal powders or filings. To create a variety of colours and textures, powders of gold, silver, copper, platinum, pewter, lead, aluminium and brass are applied while the lacquer is still damp, using bamboo tubes (funzutsu) and soft brushes (hake). Developed during the Heian period (794 – 1185 CE), Maki-e decoration blossomed in the Edo period (1600 – 1868 CE) with the Rimpa artists significantly contributing to its popularity.
Chinkin, introduced from Song China during the Muromachi period (1333-1568 CE), is the technique of decorating lacquer ware by carving designs directly into the lacquered surface using a very sharp chisel and then inlaying gold leaf or powder. Every motion of the carving requires careful concentration and there is no room for error. In contrast to ordinary drawing or painting, applying Chinkin to curved surfaces such as bowls or tea caddies requires a great amount of skill and experience.
Both techniques of Maki-e and Chinkin decoration require craftsmen to undergo many years of training to develop the necessary skills.

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