Shinya Maezaki on the connection between Japan's natural environment and its crafts
Since ancient times, crafts have been an integral part of Japanese culture. And as Japan is rich in natural resources – from the diverse vegetation in its forests, to the gemstones and precious metals in its mountains – craftsmanship and the natural environment have always been closely connected. Even Japan’s waterways and moisture-rich climate have played a huge part in the crafts of Japan, both in its trade and production.
Many of the handicrafts that are still used in present day Japan originated in the Edo period (1603 - 1868) when Japan was a feudal state. In the 18th century and early 19th century, many communities were facing financial hardship, and local industry and products were seen as a solution, which started a movement to create products that spotlight the natural features of each particular region.
Here are just a few examples of the crafts that depend on and have been inspired by nature.
Papermaking, rinsing dyed cloth, softening clay—no matter the craft, a large amount of water is needed. Water also provides sustenance to a wide array of plant life, which can be braided, knitted, woven, and carved to create many different products. The softer materials are woven into cloth, and the harder materials are woven into baskets and boxes. Wood is sculpted into furniture. Utilizing natural materials that are distinctive of the climate and natural environment of its various regions is a defining feature of Japan’s unique craft tradition.
The ocean is also a source of material, such as coral, seashells. It’s also a source of inspiration as the sea was also a way to access other cultural crafting traditions from China and the Korean Peninsula.
The presence of lacquer objects in Japan can be traced as far back to pre-historic archaeological sites. The sap that is collected by tapping into the lacquer tree has been used in all aspects of life for ages both as surface coating substance and as an adhesive, as it hardens in response to humidity, rather than a dry climate.
Earth and Fire
Japan is one of the leading producers of ceramics in the world. Clay and kaolin that are mined from the earth are painted with colorful designs in pigments made from of metals such as iron and copper, then fired to completion.
A Treasure Trove of Metals
Japan was once one of the leading producers of gold, silver, and copper in the world. The iron sand found in the rivers was made into very hard and rust-resistant iron. This technology is carried on still today in the production of iron kettles, blades, and other items.