The People’s Lacquerware

The Rise of Kishū Lacquerwares
In the second half of the Muromachi period, a group of woodworkers moved to Kuroe and began to make bowls from the hinoki cypress that was abundant in Kishū. This is said to be the origin of Kishū lacquerware. The oldest record of it is a reference to “tannin-coated wood bowls from Kuroe in Kii” appearing in the poetry reference book Kefukigusa, published in 1688 (Genroku 1). In the Wakan sansai zue illustrated encyclopedia published in 1712 (Shōtoku 2), it is introduced as one of the famous products of Kii Province (Kishū). 
The Development of Kishū Lacquerware
Kishū lacquerware developed as everyday items used by the common people. In expensive lacquerware, lacquer is used for the undercoats as well as for the finish, but in Kishū lacquerware, persimmon tannins and nikawa animal glue are used for the base coats instead of lacquer in order to keep the cost low. By around the middle of the Edo period, the production process had been separated into a division of labor, and productivity increased. This solution made inexpensive mass production possible and Kishū lacquerware became widely accepted into the daily lives of the common people. 
The Golden Age of Kishū Lacquerware
At first, the main products of Kishū lacquerware were mostly bowls, but in the 1800s, production of stacking boxes and trays also began. In terms of decoration, the makie decorative technique utilizing sprinkled gold and silver powder was introduced in the Tenpo era (1830–1844). Around 1840, approximately 5,000 people lived in Kuroe and it became one of the major centers of lacquerware production under the patronage of the local daimyo.
A Time of Transition in Kishū Lacquerwares
In the Meiji period (1868–1912), the market for Kishū lacquerwares expanded overseas. By 1883 (Meiji 16), 57% of Japan’s lacquerware exports were produced in Kii. The development of new technologies also advanced and new techniques were introduced, such as the method of carving the lacquer surface with a blade and the process of inlaying gold leaf or colored pigment known as chinkin. 
Kishū Lacquerware Today
Overseas export values of Kishū lacquerwares peaked around the middle of the Meiji period then progressively declined. In 1978 (Shōwa 53), it received the designation of “Traditional Craft Object Designated by the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry.” In recent years, as a result of lifestyle changes, demand for lacquerwares has declined. Artisans are aging and there has been a concerted effort toward securing successors and training young craftspeople.
Harvesting Lacquer
Lacquerwares are made from a resin collected by tapping the trunks of lacquer trees. Only a relatively small amount of lacquer can be obtained from a single tree and it is a precious commodity. 
Negoro Lacquerware
Negoro is a type of lacquerware that originated at Negoroji, a temple in Wakayama Prefecture. With use, the outermost coat of red lacquer is gradually worn away and the black underlayer is revealed. This style is said to have originated when the monks of Negoroji recognized the beauty in such naturally appearing designs and began to produce lacquerwares in which the outer layer was intentionally polished away. According to another theory, Kishū lacquerware originated when the monks of Negoroji fled to Kuroe after their temple was burned down.  
Drying the Unpainted Wood
The unfinished wood is carved into various different sizes and shapes depending on its intended use, then dried for several years to ensure that there is no warping or deformation in the finished product. 
The Undercoats
The base layers of finishing constitute an important step that prevents water seepage and allows for a beautiful outer surface. By taking especial care and time to apply the undercoats and lacquer in many layers, Kishū lacquer reaches completion. 
Straining with Washi Paper
The lacquer used for the outer coat is first strained through a fine washi paper called yoshinogami to remove any impurities.  
The Outer Coat
Lacquer is applied in multiple layers and then polished. Traditionally, women’s hair has been considered the best material for lacquer brushes. 
The Decorating Process
After the final coat of lacquer is completed, maki-e sprinkled gold or chinkin inlay technique is used to apply a wide variety of decorative designs depending on the function of the final product. 

The funzutsu (powder tube) is used to sprinkle gold and silver powder in the application of maki-e designs.

The funzutsu (powder tube) is used to sprinkle gold and silver powder in the application of maki-e designs.

Bits of shell are applied to the surface with lacquer in the mother-of-pearl inlay technique.

Bits of shell are applied to the surface with lacquer in the mother-of-pearl inlay technique.

The Streets of Kuroe
The Kuroe region thrived as a lacquer-producing area and its streets still retain vestiges of the past even today.  
Kuroe once faced onto the ocean, and Kishū lacquerwares were shipped out by sea. Even today, one can see references to this history, as in the survival of the shrine to Konpira Gongen (the protector of maritime trade), for example.  
Kishū Lacquerware Festival
The Kishū Lacquerware Festival has been held annually in November since 1989 (Heisei 1) for the purpose of promoting Kishū lacquerwares and to promote the development of the town of Kuroe and its traditional streetscape. When the weather is good, the festival can enjoy a bustling turnout of more than 60,000 people. 
Transmission of Kishū Lacquerwares
The Kishū Lacquerware Traditional Industry Center, known as the Uruwashi-kan, holds exhibits and sales of Kishū lacquerwares. It also offers opportunities to learn about Kishū lacquerwares through lacquer maki-e workshops and demonstrations by traditional craftsmen.
Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Credits: Story

Information provided by:
Kishu lacquer ware traditional industrial hall, Uruwashikan

Supported by:
Wakayama Prefectural Department of Commerce, Industry, Tourism and Labor Enterprise Promotion Division

Photo by:
Dr. Shinya Maezaki, Kyoto Women's University

English translation by:
Maiko Behr

Text written by:
Mashuda Maho, Kyoto Women's University

Exhibition created by:
Mashuda Maho, Kyoto Women's University
Sugishima Tsubasa, Kyoto Women's University

Project Directer:
Dr. Maezaki Shinya, Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University
Dr. Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.