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The 1998 Winter Olympics held at the Nagano Prefecture venue had a special surprise for medal winners. Competition medals were made with three processes: cloisonné which is found both in the Orient and Occident, the decorative lacquer technique known as maki-e, an intricate metal processing technique. The Kiso area of Nagano Prefecture is one of Japan's famous lacquer ware centers; maki-e is a complex technique involving the application of numerous grades and types of metallic dusts, bits, flecks, slivers, and the like, particularly gold, to a lacquered ground.
Urushi--A Part of Life
Lacquer (urushi) has been an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle; it is taken for granted as part of life and treasured for its many qualities. It has been used as a protective and decorative coating material for at least six thousand years in Japan. Lacquer-coated earthenware pots and wooden combs have been found in Japanese Neolithic sites carbon dated to about 4500 b.c. Urushi may well be mankind's first true paint and superglue.
From early historic times until the present, urushi has been used to coat such things as temple and shrine interiors; furniture and chests; sliding doors; walls and architectural interior trim; eating vessels of every type; casks, ewers, and bottles; personal accessories; chopsticks, lamp stands, paper products, and so on. The list is indeed long. Urushi's soft surface, gentle yet bright gloss and deep colors fit the traditional Japanese room interior--that is, urushi looks and feels right in a room composed of tatami mats, wood, earth, and paper. The traditional Japanese New Year repast is incomplete without lacquer ware. Particularly, special decorative lacquered tiered boxes are brought out at this time to contain the festive fare. Today, urushi is even used to decorate such things as elevator doors and computer cases.
A Living Substance
&Urushi is the sap of a tree (Rhus verniciflua). It in no way resembles the smelly stuff made in petrochemical plants, sold in little cans, and used to paint bicycles and model cars. (Both substances share the quality of having a high gloss, however, which is why both are called "lacquer.") Japanese lacquer is a living substance, even after it has been refined and pigmented and applied in numerous coatings to a wooden core.
After the urushi sap has been removed from the urushi tree, it is aged for from three to five years and then processed to form a number of lacquer types with different properties.
When urushi is applied as a thin coating over a (usually wooden) core, it undergoes a chemical hardening process (very different from evaporative drying) in conditions of high humidity and temperature. A hardened urushi coating repels water and resists acid, alkali, salt, and alcohol. It even insulates against heat and electricity. Urushi contains urushiol (the same stuff as is found in poison oak and ivy), which is responsible for lacquer's wonderful material properties as well as giving some people a month or so of severe itching if liquid urushi is touched. The complex organic structure of urushi resisted analysis until the last decade or so, and there are still mysteries that need clarification. The impervious yet resilient surface, a surface that is terribly strong yet soft to the touch, has given lacquer ware its appeal over the millennia.
From the earlist days of Far Eastern trade, Europe admired and coveted Oriental lacquer ware. The palaces and great manor houses of Europe were and still are filled with decorative lacquer pieces. European craftsmen tried long and hard to emulate the glossy black (and red) of the urushi objects and panels from China and Japan. Urushi sap was not available, so alternative substances were sought. This led to advances in traditional methods of refining pine resin into varnishes, providing a great stimulus for advances in the pigment and chemical industries in Europe. Satisfyingly glossy surfaces were eventually made with varnishes, and such objects, particularly with a high-gloss black ground, came to be known in England as "Japan-work" and the craft of making them as "Japaning".
Approaches for the Future
The real drama and romance of urushi lies not in the decoration, but in the complex processes that lie beneath the decoration. Every lacquer-working area of Japan has a different approach. The durability of lacquer ware is the result both of the high quality of the urushi refining process and of the composition of numerous undercoatings. This complexity is why lacquer work is a community craft (one of the few such in the world)--no single individual can possibly do all the various stages of the work and still make a living.
Today's lacquer craftspeople and artists have millennia of experience and tradition and technique behind them. Still, perhaps because the processes are slow and demand an intensity of concentration and much patience, the entire craft is basically conservative. Only in the last ten years or so has what might be called a basic change in approach and aesthetic appeared. Young craftsmen and artists have come to realize that the various stages in the lacquering process have potential as aesthetic statements. Thus, some young wood turners who make cores for lacquered bowls and trays have taken up the slow, pedal-driven lathes of their great-grandfather's time and are utilizing the warm effects of fortuitous lathe marks and expressive surfaces resulting from this primitive tool to make pieces of charm and artistry. Some urushi artists apply strips of urushi-soaked textile, formerly used just to reinforce edges, to make decorative statements. These new approaches are finding ready acceptance in the West. That urushi finds its natural harmony in the interior of a traditional Japanese room is true enough, and it is also true that lacquered objects lend grace and poetry to a Western room and setting. Urushi has a bright potential future outside of Japan.
- Tsugaru Lacquer Ware（Aomori）
- Hidehira Lacquer Ware（Iwate）
- Joboji Lacquer Ware（Iwate）
- Naruko Lacquer Ware（Miyagi）
- Kawatsura Lacquer Ware（Akita）
- Aizu Lacquer Ware（Fukushima）
- Kamakura Carved and Lacquered Ware（Kanagawa）
- Odawara Lacquer Ware（Kanagawa）
- Murakami Carved and Lacquered Ware（Niigata）
- Kiso Lacquer Ware（Nagano）
- Hida Shunkei Lacquer Ware（Gifu）
- Takaoka Lacquer Ware（Toyama）
- Wajima Lacquer Ware（Ishikawa）
- Yamanaka Lacquer Ware（Ishikawa）
- Kanazawa Lacquer Ware（Ishikawa）
- Echizen Lacquer Ware（Fukui）
- Wakasa Lacquer Ware（Fukui）
- Kyoto Lacquer Ware（Kyoto）
- Kishu Lacquer Ware（Wakayama）
- Ouchi Lacquer Ware（Yamaguchi）
- Kagawa Lacquer Ware（Kagawa）
- Ryukyu Lacquer Ware（Okinawa）
- Niigata Lacquer Ware（Niigata）