Lacquer has been an integral part of Japanese culture since early historic times. David Capel offers this appraisal.
Back in a far-off age when travel was something that only the very hardy or the very desperate were obliged to undertake, the vast majority of people never saw any country but their own. Before the modern era, ordinary Europeans had no more chance of visiting a place like China than they did the moon. Though they could not journey to that remote country, some were able to handle its products in the form of the remarkable porcelain it took Europeans so long to work out how to make. And just as the people of that continent could never hope to experience China, only china, they could not see Japan, only japan, which was what they called the superb lacquerware closely associated with that land at the other end of the world.
As substances go, lacquer has scant chance of being classed as user-friendly. Crude lacquer is a highly toxic yellowish resin, and it causes a painful, stubborn rash that persists for a month if it comes into contact with the skin. The choking, caustic fumes emitted by lacquer in its liquid state get the ordinary visitor to a workshop coughing and spluttering and are the vaporous equivalent of a chicken vindaloo—with extra chili. But of course the artisans who spend their working days dealing with this less-than-pleasant substance do build up a physical resistance.
In East Asia, lacquer is made from the sap of the tree of the same name (urushi), a member of the sumac family. Sap is collected from the lacquer tree, and upon hardening the lacquer loses its toxicity and imparts tremendous durability to the material it coats, which is most commonly wood, though basketry, leather and paper are also lacquered. In 1975, a 6,000-year-old lacquered comb unearthed in central Japan was in an astonishingly good state of preservation. Lacquered ornaments found at a gravesite in Hokkaido have been dated as being 9,000 years old, making them probably the world’s oldest lacquered artifacts.
The production of lacquerware can be a lengthy process. For quality ware, the bowls or trays to be lacquered are aged for two years to ensure that there will be no subsequent warping of the wood. With some pieces, up to seven thin layers of lacquer are used. After each layer has been applied, it is sanded with increasingly fine grades of sandpaper, and finally a powder of finely ground deer’s horn is rubbed against the lacquer with the bare hand to obtain near-perfect smoothness. This is followed by the last lacquer coat, which determines the quality of the finish. The test of a master craftsman is being able to apply a perfectly even coat of lacquer across the entire surface. The wide, square brush is designed to last a craftsman’s lifetime, and it is made up of strands of human hair, extending through the length of the long rectangular handle so that the ends can be trimmed every few years to maintain the brush in perfect condition.
At one time, the caustic nature of lacquer in its liquid state put limits on the types of pigment that could be mixed into it, which were mainly restricted to the earth pigments of umber and ocher and charcoal for black. Though these colors became an integral part of the aesthetic attraction of traditional lacquerware, today’s synthetic pigments enable artisans to produce lacquer of practically any color. The temperature at which crude lacquer is processed also determines its drying speed, enabling craftsmen to mix lacquers of different drying speeds to accommodate different working techniques. The sumptuous maki-e technique, in which gold or silver flake is sprinkled into the partially dried lacquer, makes use of such processes.
One of the greatest appeals of a lacquer bowl is the touch. Despite being such a strong adhesive, lacquer gives a finish that imparts a pleasing softness and warmth. Another unique quality of Japanese lacquer is something that more than a few humans might wish applied to them: it most definitely improves with age. A piece of lacquerware takes on enhanced luster, making its colors more beautiful and the finish glossier after the owner has lavished on it a decade of fond usage.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.