Urushi, japanese lacquerware

  • Published on : 17/01/2020
  • by : S.V.
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Luxury, lacquer and pleasure

"The Japanese excel in this art to the highest degree, because they are extremely skilled at giving a lacquer object the appearance of being made of shiny ivory" - Joao Rodrigues, Portuguese Jesuit missionary of the sixteenth century.

 Lacquer object from the city of Wajima

Lacquer object from the city of Wajima


Ancient use

The urushi technique has been used in Japan since protohistoric times, around 5000 BC, to protect and waterproof wooden and terracotta tools and utensils. But from the ninth century, there were two distinct uses: firstly, the lacquer was used to protect and decorate objects of another material (wood, metal...) and secondly, it is used to create clean objects, provided with a fine frame of wood, fabric or leather. They require more than thirty processes to be created, as well as incredible meticulousness! Due to its protective quality, urushi is the ideal coating for furniture and tableware. Lacquer also has the advantage of insulating the item from heat and protecting food. But beyond this practicality, lacquer is a material offering many decorative possibilities, and for this reason it became popular with the nobility.

Read: The Shunkei Lacquer Museum in Takayama

Decorative lacquer on 18th century armor

18th century Japanese armor with decorative lacquer patterns


Always more lacquers

Thanks to the social transformations of the Edo era (1603-1868), lacquer became accessible to all; even at the lowest social classes. Therefore, the use of urushi was no longer reserved for the religious or warrior elites. The creation of new production centers throughout the country, and consequently a greater variety of objects, made lacquer products accessible for all. Japanese interiors flourished and many households had lacquered objects such as incense boxes, document boxes, writing cases, smoking utensils, inro, etc. In addition to everyday objects, lacquer continued to adorn prestigious furniture and battle accessories such as armor, helmets, masks, scabbards, leggings and arm guards.

To learn more...

To admire Japanese lacquerware, you can go to the major national museums. The National Museum of Tokyo and the National Museum of Kyoto house some wonderful pieces. Japan also has some museums entirely dedicated to urushi. If you want to learn more about this subtle art, we recommend that you visit the Shunkei Lacquer Museum in Takayama, or the Urushi Museum in Nikko.

Surimono-cat-Yashima Gakutei

The lacquer is so shiny that this cat is scared of its own reflection! Surimono print by Yashima Gakutei, circa 1820-1830


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