There are many beautiful and preserved craft techniques in Japan that have withstood the erosion of time and remain precious traditions today. A good example of this would be the handmade kimono, and especially “kuro montsukizome”, the art of applying dark black dye that was almost forgotten but revived by using it with modern clothing. Another example would be origami, or paper folding, that is still done today and gained popularity around the world. Japan is very good at preserving ancient traditions, and his wonderful feature is what makes Japan the charming mix of modern innovation and ancient cultures that it is today.
Have you ever come across red and black soup bowls, trays, chopsticks, and other lacquerware pieces during your travels in Japan? These pieces are iconic in this country. It is true that cheap imitations abound, but this article is about the time-consuming and even dangerous process of creating traditional Japanese lacquerware called “urushi.” Let’s find out more about it.
It is highly likely that systematic techniques to create lacquer pieces were imported to Japan from China. However, the discovery of lacquered ornaments dating from the Jomon Period (14,000 – 300 BC) provides evidence that lacquer craft also independently emerged in Japan.
Traditional lacquer comes from the sap of the Asian lacquer tree – toxicodendron vernicifluum, formerly rhus vernicifera. This tree is not easy to deal with as its sap actually has the same kind of allergic oil that is found in poison ivy! In fact, the name of this oil (urushiol) comes from the Japanese name of the tree – urushi.
The word “urushi” is also used for the lacquerware itself, and some people say that the word comes from two other Japanese words: “uruwashi”, meaning “beautiful”, and “uruosu”, which means “to moisten”. For those of you who enjoy kanji, it is interesting to note that the kanji for urushi (漆) is unique in that it is perhaps the only tree kanji which does not have the tree radical (木) prominent on the left side, such as “桜” for sakura (cherry blossom) and “楓” for maple trees. Instead, the radical for water is there (氵), which emphasizes that the tree is valuable not so much for its wood, but its water, or sap. To remember the right side, you can use the following mnemonic: when a tree (木) is cut (symbolized by the upside-down “v”), water (水) comes out. That is some handy information if you are interested in studying Japanese kanji!
To harvest the sap, a couple of slashes are made in the tree for it to seep out. Once the sap is obtained, it is filtered several times through layers of special paper. The result is a translucent lacquer which color ranges from very light to a dark amber.
The more urushiol there is in the sap, the higher the quality of the lacquer will be. Of course, this also means that it is trickier to deal with, as the urushiol is what makes the lacquer so dangerous to work with. Reactions can occur even from the vapors of the urushi liquid, and it is not advised to try to harvest anything from an urushi tree on your own because of its toxic properties. In fact, tea made from the bark of the urushi tree used to be used in the process of live mummification!
After many years of meditation, exercise, and a special diet of nuts and berries, and later only bark and roots to shed body fat, monks of an obscure sect of Shingon Buddhism would drink the tea, which caused the inside of their bodies to be coated with a lacquer-like substance. It also made their bodies too poisonous to be eaten by maggots and therefore, their bodies wouldn’t rot away. You can read more about this strange and fascinating mummification process by another author in this article.
What do Buddhist mummies and the traditional lacquer have in common? The tree!
Urushi lacquer is applied with a brush to an object already formed, usually out of wood or bamboo, but sometimes out of paper, leather, or basket material. Traditional urushi brushes were made out of human hair! Its texture was found to be just right. It is hard to find this kind of brush today even among traditional artisans. You can, however, find brushes using the hair of different kinds of animals including sheep, minks, and even mice.
As the urushi lacquer hardens, it absorbs moisture from the air. This makes the lacquerware perpetually shiny and slick. It also makes it very durable and able to withstand erosion from water, acids, alkalies, alcohol, and changes in temperature, which is the main reason lacquer became an art form to begin with.
While different pigments may be used to dye lacquer, black and red are the most common. Black pigmentation is achieved by the addition of iron, and red pigmentation is brought about by the addition of ferric oxide (Fe2O3) or cinnabar (HgS).
The creation of one piece of urushi art is very time-consuming. The careful application of many layers and the drying times between them, not to mention the ornamentation can take months. There are also many different kinds of lacquer techniques, all with unique forms of beauty.
Lacquer has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Over time, various techniques and art forms blossomed. Before it was used as a lacquer, urushi was used to mount the tips of spears as it is a strong and durable adhesive. People later discovered that this very adhesiveness had another use – decoration.
The Heian Period (794 – 1185 AD) saw the development of maki-e (蒔絵), which literally means “sprinkled picture.” With this technique, gold or silver powder is sprinkled over the urushi as it dries to make beautiful designs. This art form really took off in the Edo period (1603 – 1868 AD) and became popular among royalty and the upper classes. Urushi trees were cultivated en masse in this time period.
Over the years, various regional techniques developed all over Japan such as Odawara lacquer in which the beauty of natural wood is highlighted, and Kagawa lacquer in which bamboo basketry is lacquered in a special way. If you visit Japan, I would recommend for you to research to see if the area or areas you visit have their own special lacquering technique. If you are lucky, you may even be able to meet someone who specialises in upkeeping this technique by designing their own high-quality pieces.
As you might suspect, urushi lacquerware isn’t found at cheap stores such as the hundred yen shop, Daiso – it is far too valuable for that! The black and red bowls you will find in bargain stores are, of course, made of plastic, although their style was certainly inspired from true urushi. The introduction of plastic and other cheaper alternatives such as acrylic lacquer has diminished the demand for urushi over time. However, thankfully Japan is a place that really values traditional arts, so there are still many artisans to be found. Along with traditional works, there are also many examples of modern takes on the art of urushi.
The studio Nendo juxtaposed the modern with the traditional when they commissioned urushi artists to paint over the packaging for the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama. The paper cups that were disposable, cheap, and easy to make were utterly transformed into lasting pieces of beauty. Time, effort and workmanship were brought to the forefront and gave fans of cup noodles some information on this ancient Japanese art form.
The creation of urushi pieces takes a lot of time and skill, and this dedication can be seen in the quality of the final product. In fact, traditional urushi lacquerware is so durable and of such high quality that pieces hundreds of years old retain their glossy luster even today! Urushi pieces are symbols of patience and resilience, two terms often associated with the Japanese themselves. Seeing a real urushi piece is something quite special, as in one small piece you can easily see the time and effort, not to mention the risk, that went into creating it. If you are lucky enough to see a genuine example of urushi, be sure to show your appreciation!