A traditional Japanese craft that combines practicality and beauty | Kishu lacquerware


Kishu lacquerware, one of the most traditional lacquerware in Japan

Kishu lacquerware has been produced in Kuroe, Kainan City, Wakayama Prefecture. This traditional Japanese craft is simple, sturdy, and affordable, and has been popular among the general public as “practical vessels” that are easy to use in everyday life.

The process of applying and drying lacquer is repeated many times to build up the lacquer. To finish the polishing process, oil mixed with deer antler powder is applied to the hands and polished, giving the surface a glossy appearance. This process is repeated many times in order to naturally polish the underlying black color as if it had been used for a long time. In addition, when elaborate maki-e lacquer is applied, it may take more than two years to complete.

In fact, this Kishu lacquerware is one of the “Three Great Lacquer Ware of Japan”, along with Fukushima Prefecture’s Aizu lacquerware and Ishikawa Prefecture’s Wajima lacquerware. As this prestigiousness implies, Kishu lacquerware is so famous, historic, and valuable.

kishu lacquerware
Source: Azumahouse Corp.

The traditional characteristic of Kishu lacquerware is its vivid vermilion color. However, in recent years, to meet a variety of needs, various shades of lacquerware have been produced. After the top coat is applied, the color of the lacquer is sometimes varied by using a different lacquer mixture, or by grinding the base lacquer to add a glossy finish. The lacquered vessels are then beautifully decorated to give them a sophisticated look. Makie (gold leaf, silver, or tin powder sprinkled on lacquer), chinkin (gold leaf), and raden (mother-of-pearl inlay) are some of the techniques used to decorate lacquerware.

Lacquerware can be either lacquered (Urushi) or painted with cashew lacquer (synthetic lacquer). Lacquer is a very precious material (found only in Asia), and those painted with cashew lacquer are less expensive. For this reason, most lacquerware today is made with synthetic lacquer.

The History of Kishu lacquerware

The Beginning

Kishu lacquerware is said to have originated in the early Muromachi period (1333-1573), around 1400, when woodworkers from Omi moved to Kuroe (The place where Kishu lacqueraware belong to) and began making Shibuji bowls using the abundant timber in Kishu region. The “Kii* Kuroe Shibuji Bowls” were made by Kishu lacquerware in the 1688, and the “Kii Kuroe Shibuji Bowls” were made by Kishu lacquerware in the 1712 Genroku era. In 1712 (Shotoku 2), a book titled “Wakan sansai zue” (The Three Sages of Japan in the Japanese and Chinese Era) refers to Kishu lacquerware as a specialty of Kii.

*Kii is another name for Kishu region

The prosperity of Kishu lacquerware during the Edo period

Before the Edo period, there were few merchants in Kuroe, and Kishu lacquerware was not widely distributed to other countries. Around the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867), the Kishu Tokugawa Clan took over the business, and the division of labor was further promoted, resulting in inexpensive, mass-produced lacquerware. Around this time, specialized lacquerware merchants and lacquerware traders appeared, and the distribution of lacquerware in Kuroe was revitalized.

In the early days, Kishu lacquerware was mainly made in the form of “bowls,” such as Sukimono bowls and eighty bowls, and it was not until the 1800s that a variety of items such as stacked boxes and trays began to be produced. In 1826, a craftsman named Chobei Ogawaya succeeded in producing kataji itamono, and in the Tempo period (1830-1844), maki-e using gold and silver powders was introduced, and direct sales to foreign merchants visiting Nagasaki and Kobe began, and Kuroe flourished as a major production center of Shibuji bowls.

kishu lacquerware
Souce: Creema – Kogei style

Shift to export

Kishu lacquerware lost the protection of the clan when the prefecture was abolished during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), and although it temporarily declined, it recovered with the start of full-scale overseas trade around 1870, and by 1883, 57% of all exported lacquerware was from Kishu.

In 1879, chinkin, a technique in which the lacquer surface is engraved and then filled with gold leaf or other materials to create a pattern, was introduced. In 1898, a maki-e artist was invited from Kyoto to improve maki-e designs, and new techniques were developed for Kishu lacquerware. Unfortunately, the export value of Kishu lacquerware peaked in the middle of the Meiji period (1868-1912) and then declined.

Kishu Lacquerware in the Modern Era

From the early Taisho period to the early Showa period, the production area developed new varieties of lacquerware, such as Tenryu-nuri, Nishiko-nuri, and Silk-nuri. In the first half of the 1950s, hardboard was introduced, and in the latter half of the 1960s, new base materials such as plastic materials were introduced. In 1949, Kuroe was designated as an “Important Lacquer Industrial Park,” and in 1978, Kishu lacquerware was designated as a “Traditional Craft” by the government. Currently, three lacquer craftsmen, Katsuhiko Hayashi, Toshifumi Tanioka, and Kimiko Tanioka, are certified as “traditional craftsmen” of Kishu lacquerware.

Manufacturing Method & Process

1. Lacquer picking and making

  1. The Urushi tree is scratched with a knife to collect the “lacquer liquid,” the sap that oozes out of the tree.
  2. The raw lacquer collected is purified and filtered to remove water and increase its transparency so that it becomes shiny and glossy.

2. Making the base of the wood

Wood is processed to make the base. Each part of the vessel is first cut from the wood, then the parts are joined together, and the whole joined piece is further shaved and finished.

3. Base Coating

The process of applying lacquer is divided into two steps: “base coating” and “top coating. In the base coat, scratches on the wood are repaired to make the surface smooth, and fragile areas are reinforced with cloth or Japanese paper.

4. Coating the topcoat

After the basecoat process is completed, lacquer is applied to the wood. There are three stages in the top-coating process: “undercoating,” “middle coating,” and “top-coating. The “undercoat” is to improve the effect of the “topcoat” and the “middle coat” is to make the “topcoat” more elegant.

  1. After the “undercoating” is finished, the lacquer is dried in a humid lacquer drying room called a “lacquer bath” to avoid dust and dirt. After drying, the surface is polished to make it smooth so that the lacquer of the “middle coating” will adhere well.
  2. After the “middle coating” is completed, the lacquer is again dried in a “lacquer bath”. After drying, the surface is polished again to make it smooth so that the “top coat” will adhere well.
  3. The “top coat” is applied a little thicker than the “middle coat”.
  4. After the lacquer has been applied, the lacquer is turned over at regular intervals and allowed to dry so that it does not run down and accumulate at the bottom.

5. Decoration

After the lacquer has been applied and dried, the next step is “decoration,” in which patterns are added. There are several types of decoration techniques such as makie, chinkin, mother-of-pearl inlays, and silk screen.

kishu lacquerware decoration
  • Makie: A picture is drawn with lacquer, and gold leaf, silver, or tin powder, or powder made from dried colored lacquer is sprinkled on the picture before the lacquer dries to finish the pattern.
  • Chinkin: A chinkin chisel is used to carve a line in the design, raw lacquer is rubbed into the carved area, and gold leaf is applied on top of the raw lacquer.
    *Chinkin is often used when manufacturing traditional lacquerware such as Echizen Lacquerware
  • Raden: The beautifully shiny inner part of a shell is cut out and embedded or pasted on the surface of the lacquerware. This technique was introduced from China in ancient times.
  • Silk screen: Spray painting is used instead of traditional hand-drawn maki-e. Mass production is possible.
Kishu lacquerware
Source: http://www.jp-omiyage.shop/shopdetail/000000000133/


Smooth and deep luster. The well-honed traditional beauty of “Japanese” gives the viewer a pleasant sense of tension. Warm to the touch and soft to the palate. Every time you use it, you will feel that it is genuine. In recent years, numerous Kishu lacquerware products such as bowls, lunch boxes, and chopsticks have been manufactured as tools for daily life. Kishu lacquerware, made in Japan with peace of mind, is a great gift for yourself or a friend. High-grade lacquerware finished with maki-e and other techniques is carefully used as a tool for fine occasions and for appreciation, and the craftsmanship of the lacquerware shines through. It is an authentic craft that is also traded overseas. There is a genuine impression created by a long history and inherited techniques.

Kishu Chest


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