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Technology revives the art of lacquering
Manabu Akaike
10/7/2004

Japan uses about 500 tons of lacquer every year to decorate lacquerware and Buddhist altars, etc. Most of that is imported from China and Vietnam.

Only 7.5 tons of lacquer is produced in Japan. But even when cheaper imported lacquer is used as a basecoat, the decoration of high-quality lacquerware still requires Japanese lacquer, which has a high gloss and transparency. The only place where a considerable number of lacquer craftsmen remain today is a single region in Tohoku.

The workers that collected the lacquer from the lacquer (lac or sumac) trees were known as urushi-kaki or lacquer-tappers. In the past, these men were issued with special licenses and collection stamps, and would go around the lacquer producing regions in groups collecting the lacquer. In cooperation with the rokuroshi or traveling lathe workers who possessed the special skill of turning the wooden bases for the lacquer, the superior art of Japanese lacquerware was established.

Then about 400 years ago craftsmen began to develop new ideas for lathe work, including the beautiful pattern of detailed concentric circles known as itomebiki. This was the beginning of Yamanaka lacquerware, and the Yamanaka region today leads Japan in the production of lacquerware. Today there are about 980 companies involved in the production of Yamanaka lacquerware, employing about 5,000 people. Annual production totals 40 billion yen, making Yamanaka the largest producer of lacquerware in Japan.

The distinctive features of Yamanaka lacquerware are first the skill involved in forming the wooden bases. Only superior wood bases with very little distortion are used, always made of natural wood cut lengthwise that is carefully dried and cured. Nama-urushi, or raw unprocessed lacquer, is used as the basecoat to harden the wood and reinforce the linen layer. The basecoat and topcoats are all applied by hand. The piece is completed with the addition of the maki-e, literally “sprinkled picture,” applied using gold and silver powders sifted and adhered over the wet patterns painted in colored lacquer to decorate the surface. A perfect combination of durability and beauty, this is the highest achievement of Yamanaka lacquerware.

But when looking at a breakdown of production volume, we see that 35 billion yen or fully 75% of production is plastic base lacquerware, known as modern 1acquerware. This is a result of Yamanaka craftsmen putting their energy into developing new dishware and interior goods to meet our new lifestyles, and taking on the gift and premium markets. But over the last few years, competition from cheap foreign imports and glassware and ceramics have continued to keep the market for plastic lacquerware slack. And with the growing public outcry against problems caused by the improper disposal of chemical waste as represented by the dioxin problem and allergies to chemical substances, the Yamanaka lacquerware industry has been forced to make a major, correction to its product strategy.

New Lacquer Using Unique Ions Is Developed

The lacquer businesses of Yamanaka have taken some innovative actions to help cover the decreased demand in the drastically depressed modern plastic lacquerware market. The first stirrings of this movement was the creation of the authentication system for genuine Yamanaka goods. Once lacquer is applied to a vessel or dish, it is very hard for a non-professional to tell whether it is made of wood or plastic. The Yamanaka Wooden Lacquerware Cooperative Association applies a brand mark of either gold, silver, copper or vermilion to high-grade lacquerware to represent the degree to which it conforms to traditional processing methods. This is an effective public relations tool for drawing the distinction between these genuine goods and low quality modern plastic lacquerware.

The second action taken was the formation of a unified course of study in research and development by the businesses involved in all aspects of lacquerware, from wholesalers to wood and lacquer material makers, and from basecoat and maki-e painters to finishers and packagers. Building a network with the local Industrial Research Institute and the Wood and Design Centers at the Kanazawa College of Arts & Crafts, the course invites outside representatives from other fields as visiting lecturers. The companies have also opened to the public their factories and craftsmen's skills, and are trying to learn about marketing, development of new materials, production technology, computer-aided design and public relations through regular study programs or lectures.

These experiments have borne fruit. For example, young volunteers have created a database of traditional old maki-e designs, and it is now possible to manage all the recipes for mixing the world’s largest collection of lacquer colors, numbering 1,200 different colors, in a unified fashion.

Moreover, the Industrial Research Institute is now working to develop a brand new type of lacquer. First, old methods of making colored lacquer involving using cinnabar, a red ore that contains mercury among other substances, were analyzed, and ways to make new colors were theorized and codified. Worthy of special mention is the niji-iro urushi or rainbow-colored lacquer that employs a unique ion. Born of research into how to prevent lacquerware from degrading under high temperatures when using a laser to smooth the lacquerware surface is the so-called rainbow color lacquer, which has an iridescent sheen and up to seven colors. The final challenge for the local industry will be developing applications for use with wood in barrier-free living environments. A floor varnish that can withstand damage from indoor wheelchair usage and from which rubber tire marks can be easily wiped off cannot be achieved using chemically derived coatings, but is within the realm of possibility for an enzyme hardened coating substance.

The Yamanaka lacquerware industry may have some important lessons for other traditional industries today as the public calls for the restoration of the use of natural materials in our homes and businesses.

This article was featured by Japan for Sustainability (www.japanfs.org).

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