Urushi: The Underlying Culture of Japanese People

By Wajima Museum of Urushi Art

Throughout history urushi has been used in a wide variety of ways such as personal adornments, religious items, eating utensils and furnishings for at least 9000 years since the early Jomon period. It has also had a deep influence on the evolution of the spiritual culture of the Japanese and as a coating medium it is believed to possess spiritual properties. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that urushi is one part of the underlying culture of the Japanese people.

Wajima-nuri Soup bowls coated with lacquer.Wajima Museum of Urushi Art

Wajima-nuri

Wajima-nuri Soup bowls coated with lacquer.Wajima Museum of Urushi Art

Wajima-nuri

Urushi treeWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Urushi tree

Urushi treeWajima Museum of Urushi Art

About Urushi

Urushi is the sap of the urushi tree. It has strong adhesive properties and is used as a lacquering material that on hardening becomes extremely durable and produces a glossy finish. It can be found widely throughout Eastern Asia and has been used in Japan for several thousand years. The word ‘urushi’ is thought to have originated from the Japanese uruwashi or urumu which approximates to the English for fresh and vibrant gloss. When urushi hardens it is very resistant to both acids and alkalis and is durable enough to last several thousand years. Urushi product have been found in excavations that date from the Jomon period (8000 BC - 300 BC). There have even been cases reported where the original wooden base has completely rotted away but the original urushi coating has remained with its color and quality preserved. 

Urushi treeWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Urushi is also a very delicate substance. 

 Urushi is also a very delicate substance. The quality of urushi changes depending on the time of day and year in which the urushi is taken from the tree and it is also affected by the method and place by which it is collected. Urushi is different from other coating materials in the way that it is dried. It contains a substance called urushiol which reacts with oxygen and hardens through a process of oxidization. For this process to occur a suitable temperature and level of humidity are both necessary. The drying process also proceeds gradually over a considerable length of time after the piece has been completed. Therefore a piece that has just been finished should be treated very carefully when it is first used. It can be used normally after the first year and after about three years of use the gloss fully matures and the piece can be said to have come of age.

Ki urushiWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Urushiware is ecological

With its raw materials of wood and urushi, urushiware is a collaboration of two of the blessings of nature. The production process uses almost all natural materials which means that a very small amount of energy is required. Further, there are no harmful side-effects associated with the production process and it creates minimal environmental pollution or ecological damage.

Soup bowls with design of lobster in chinkin. (18-19C)Wajima Museum of Urushi Art

Sake wear coated with red lacquer. (1784)Wajima Museum of Urushi Art

Four tiered box with design of old pine tree in chinkin. (1848) by ISHIYA SeikuroWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Set of nine sake cups and stand decorated with makie. (1865)Wajima Museum of Urushi Art

Nimaiashizen-type meal table and bowls coated with black lacquer. (1907) by KOSHIKIMI SeikuroWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Set of gobosamazen-type meal tables and bowls coated with black lacquer. (1907) by KOSHIKIMI SeikuroWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Nimaiashizen-type meal table and bowls coated red lacquer. (1926) by SHOJI ZenjiroWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Wajima-nuri Lacquer wareWajima Museum of Urushi Art

How to handle urushiware

If urushiware is used for its original purpose it will rarely become damaged. However, there are some points to remember with regard to the way that it is washed and stored.

Wajima-nuri Lacquer wareWajima Museum of Urushi Art

If care is taken to keep to these guidelines, urushiware will enhance the aesthetic quality of your life for many years to come.

Wajima-nuri Lacquer wareWajima Museum of Urushi Art

How to wash

Urushiware can be washed with a conventional neutral household detergent. Scrubbing brushes and steel wool that contain abrasive material in them will cause scratching and so should be avoided. If urushiware is washed separately from tableware with rough surfaces such as pottery any risk of scratching can be further avoided

Wajima-nuri Lacquer wareWajima Museum of Urushi Art

No microwave ovens 

Electromagnetic waves burn urushi so under no circumstances should urushiware be put into microwave ovens.

Wajima-nuri Lacquer wareWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Refrain from using automatic dishwashers and dish dryers 

Please refrain from automatic dish washers and dish dryers as boiling water and hot air can damage urushi.

Wajima-nuri Lacquer wareWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Avoid direct sunlight

Urushi deteriorates by being exposed to ultra-violet rays and so should not be placed in areas that get direct sunlight for long periods of time.

Wajima-nuri Lacquer wareWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Wajima-nuri Lacquer wareWajima Museum of Urushi Art

Scratches and damage can be repaired

 Urushiware can be re-lacquered and damage can be repaired. 

Wajima-nuri Lacquer wareWajima Museum of Urushi Art

In Wajima this has been known from olden times as naoshimon and is the responsibility of craftsman who made it.

Credits: Story

Wajima Museum of Urushi Art
Published by Wajima Cit,Lacquerware commerce and Industry section

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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.
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