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black lacquer bowl with gold decoration

A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Lacquerware

The word "Japan" in English means Japan, but did you know that it also means "lacquer" or "lacquerware"? This is a remnant of the days when lacquerware was a symbolic export of Japan. Let us introduce you to the charms of lacquer and lacquerware, which share the same name as that of the country.


What is lacquer?

Lacquer, or Urushi in Japanese, is the sap extracted from the Japanese sumac (Rhus javanica), which is widely spread in Southeast Asia. When the tree bark is damaged, it secretes a milky white sap that forms a hard film over the damage like a scab in the human body. The Japanese have been taking advantage of the hardening natures of the sap over 9000 years in using lacquere in life.

While it takes about 10 years from the seeding to the harvesting, only 200 grams of lacquer can be obtained from one mature tree, which is about the same amount as one milk bottle. Thus the lacquer is called "a drop of blood" and is treated with great care.

lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum)


Beautiful, but safe for the health

Lacquer can be handled as a product only after removing wood chips and debris, stirring to remove water, and homogenizing the ingredients. Urushiol, the main ingredient of lacquer, causes a chemical reaction with oxygen in the air, which gradually hardens and creates excellent durability, water resistance, heat insulation, and antiseptic properties. It is characterized by its general hardness and toughness, but also by its safety for the health.

The lacquer coating has a moderately elastic hardness, and the surface has a softness unique to lacquer. The more lacquer is applied, the tougher the coating becomes and the deeper the luster becomes. The beautiful coloring of lacquer is something that no other material can produce.

Lacquer also has antibacterial and sterilizing properties, and is resistant to acids and alkalis, preventing the growth of harmful insects and fungi. Because of these characteristics, lacquer has long been used as a coating and adhesive in Japan. It is widely valued in Japanese crafts, from everyday items such as bowls, chopsticks, trays, and stacked boxes to interiors' decorations such as floors and ceilings.


Japanese Lacquerware Across the Sea

Lacquerware is a representative Japanese craft, by applying lacquer over the surface of wood or paper. Lacquer requires relatively high temperature and humidity to dry, which is ideal for Japan's hot and humid climate. This favorable climate helped the development of Japan's unique lacquer culture, which incorporated various decorative techniques such as mother-of-pearl inlays (a technique in which the shiny parts of shellfish are processed and inlaid into the lacquer) and maki-e (a technique in which lacquer is used to draw pictures and characters on the surface of lacquerware, and gold or silver powder is sprinkled on the surface before it dries to create pictorial patterns).

During the Age of Exploration from the 15th to 17th centuries, Europeans who visited Japan were fascinated by the beauty of lacquerware and sent lacquer decorated with gold and silver patterns to their own countries. Lacquerware became a valuable export to the West and attracted great interest in Europe.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, lacquerware became popular among European royalty and nobility. They competed with each other to purchase lacquerware as a symbol of wealth and power. Queen Marie Antoinette of France is famous for her avid collection of lacquerware decorated with glittering maki-e lacquer. Her magnificent collection is still preserved at the Palace of Versailles.

Japan was once known as Zipangu, and was described in Marco Polo's Book of Oriental Discoveries as "Travels of Marco Polo". The gold on black artifacts must have stirred the yearning of Europe's powerful men for Japan and gripped their hearts.

Black lacquer box with shell decorations

Lacquerware captivated the privileged people of Europe, and still has lovers all over the world.

Lacquerware takes about a year after completion to develop a strong coating, and the more it is used, the more it adds its profoundness. Therefore, lacquerware is also known as "nurturing ware". Why not take this opportunity to have a piece of lacquerware that you like and enjoy the pleasure of growing it? It may add an accent to your daily life.

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