Japanese lacquer culture developed from the Jomon period

There are various theories as to why “Japan” is the name of Japan and the word has come to refer to lacquerware.

For example, a lot of lacquerware was exported from Japan in the Nanban Trade in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. There is a theory that Westerners were surprised by the beauty of lacquerware from Japan and came to call shikki (lacquerware) “Japan.”

What surprised Westerners so much was that there were no lacquer trees in Europe, and therefore they had never seen the moist gloss of lacquered wood products.

On the other hand, in Japan, lacquered products have also been excavated from Jomon period remains. Lacquer has been familiar to us Japanese since that long ago.

If you ask me whether lacquer trees were native to the Japanese islands to begin with, well that is not true. Lacquer pollen is not excavated from old strata. Lacquer trees have been around since ancient times in China.

A study of the haplotype patterns of Japanese lacquer leaves found that Japanese lacquer trees are similar to the patterns found in the Korean Peninsula, northern parts of the peninsula, and the Shandong region of China.

Lacquer trees in those areas, which are close to Japan, were probably brought about by repeated exchanges. In fact, lacquer branches dating back approximately 12,600 years have been excavated from the Torihama shell mounds in Fukui Prefecture.

After that, Japanese people collected sap from lacquer trees and continued to improve their technique to apply lacquer sap to tools around them.

Lacquered clothing has been excavated as burial goods at the Kakinoshima B site in Hokkaido, which dates to the early Jomon period. The clothing is approximately 9,000 years old and is said to be the oldest lacquered product in the world.

Furthermore, when it comes to the remains from the middle to the end of the Jomon period, lacquered products were excavated widely from Hokkaido to Kanto.

The Jomon period has an image as a period of making earthenware, but in fact, lacquering is also a technique that symbolizes the Jomon period.

For example, remains of the houses of the village are found at the center of concentric circles, surrounded by a forest where edible fruits such as chestnuts and walnuts can be harvested, and a lacquer forest has been found outside of the fruit forest. In other words, it is thought that Jomon people planted not only edible trees but also lacquer trees.

There are also remains where a lot of unfinished lacquerware was found in one house in the village. I think it was probably the house of a lacquer craftsman. There is also a theory that the person was a member of the village, or that there was a group of lacquer engineers who circulated village to village.

In fact, the basic techniques of lacquer painting, such as how many coats of lacquer are applied after the wood having absorbed lacquer as the first step of application in order to harden the wood, were almost completed in the Jomon period.

This is because there were professional engineers and craftsmen, and they repeated the process of trial and error. It is amazing that they developed the technology in such ancient times to the extent that it can be understood and utilized today.

Japan has long been a region of wood culture, and because of its humid climate, coating techniques may have been enhanced to protect wood products. For example, there is also a lacquer culture in humid Southeast Asia, where the same wood culture exists.

On the other hand, in China, lacquer trees grew naturally, but pottery technology was more advanced in view of a different climate there.

In a sense, the lacquer technique developed out of necessity because of Japan’s natural environment, and the decorative approach such as makie (a technique using Japanese lacquer sprinkled with gold powder) and kinko (gold powder) was incorporated into the techniques and developed into unique Japanese culture, creating traditional crafts that surprise the West.

Lacquerware that triggers thinking about sustainable living

However, in the Showa period, the use of lacquerware decreased drastically after the war. It is because lacquerware has become relatively expensive owing to the spread of inexpensive plastic products, and lacquerware is also considered to be delicate and difficult to maintain.

However, lacquerware has excellent water resistance, heat insulation, and antiseptic properties. In other words, it is strong and durable. If you do not pour boiling water, rub it with a hard brush when washing, or keep it exposed to direct sunlight, it will not be damaged easily.

In fact, I have seen in a history museum a lacquer bowl used in the Meiji period for a long time to the point the base was worn out. Even so, the coating is robust and the soup will not leak. Probably, if the bowl got damaged a little while using it, the user had a craftsman repaint it.

In that way, lacquerware was widely used in daily necessities, so it is said that approximately 2,000 tons of lacquer were produced annually in the Edo period. It was in the 1960s that the production began to decrease drastically. At present, it is only about 1.8 tons per year.

Therefore, 97 to 98% of the lacquer used in Japan has been imported from China. The situation has recovered by 2020 to the extent that the 5% can be covered by domestic lacquer, and this is probably because there was a notification from the Agency for Cultural Affairs to use domestic lacquer for the restoration of historical cultural assets.

The spread of the SDGs concept in recent years has also had an impact. Lacquer is a carbon-neutral natural material, of course, but what is more, lacquerware can give us the opportunity to reconsider our lives.

With the spread of cheap plastic products, the disposable lifestyle model, in which if daily necessities are broken, cheap things are bought again, has spread.

But I think a lot of people are starting to realize that when you think about the environment, when you think about sustainability, it is a very demanding way of life.

In fact, it is said that lacquerware was considered beneath setomono (Chinaware) in the Edo period: It was not considered a luxury to keep using it for a long time and keep repairing it. For that reason, most of the common people used lacquerware, and people who could afford it used setomono.

But is it really a luxurious life? Is it really convenient life for us to buy cheap products again every time they are broken? How do you feel now?

Modern lacquerware is certainly expensive. That is because lacquerware is made by hand by craftsmen. And the craftsmen and domestic lacquer, which is the material, are also in very short supply.

In Japan today, other than craftsmen who paint lacquer, there are even fewer craftsmen who do the scratching to collect sap from lacquer trees and craftsmen who make tools such as brushes.

In recent years, activities to develop human resources engaged in lacquer and to secure mountains which are ready to volunteer for lacquer trees to be planted have finally begun.

I think that we consumers should also choose to use lacquerware when considering a truly affluent and sustainable life. This will lead to the handing down of Japan’s unique lacquer culture and the concept of the SDGs aiming for the future.

Lacquer culture to be passed down to future generations

As mentioned above, lavishly made lacquerware using the incredible approach such as makie, gold powder, and silver studs have been exported to Western Europe since the Nanban Trade.

One of them is the Magellan Chest, a large chest owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, a British national museum. The Chest was made between 1630 and 1640, and there was a restoration project from 2004 to 2008.

Identification of the production area of the Magellan Chest itself has not been carried out, and only basic properties (such as how much the Chest has deteriorated) are analyzed. On that occasion, various chemical analyses were used to investigate the components of the lacquer used in this chest. Lacquer has its own components depending on the production area, and its characteristics can be identified by pyrolysis analysis.

Such chemical analysis makes it possible to restore cultural assets using the same materials from the time they were made. Conversely, ever if the production area of lacquer can be analyzed, if the lacquer is no longer produced there, it may be difficult to restore valuable cultural assets.

There are even many Buddha statues made of lacquer in Japan. Some of them are national treasures. In order to preserve such cultural assets for future generations, it is important to inherit the lacquer culture.

Various activities have been started by people who feel threatened by the decline of lacquer culture. One of them is to bring lacquerware to kindergartens and elementary schools and have them use it for meals.

Lacquerware is palatable, light, and even if you put something hot in it, the temperature will not transmit easily and it is easy to hold by hand, so it seems to be popular among children also.

And some Australian surfers apply lacquer to their surfboards because it is resistant to salt water. A lacquer craftsman was at a loss for an answer when asked why Japanese people do not use such good things.

Why don’t you choose lacquerware when you buy tableware? If you use lacquerware, you can feel that the life of the common people in the Edo period was unexpectedly rich.

* The information contained herein is current as of December 2021.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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