Urushi (lacquer) art is unique to Japan, China, Korea and the countries of Southeast Asia, each country preserving to the present day its own particular traditions. Japanese urushi art is especially rich in terms both of variety and sophistication of technique.
In addition to the highly developed skills that Japanese craftsmen have used to elevate urushi art to the heights for which it is renowned, Japan is blessed with an abundance of trees producing high quality hard urushias well as a variety of timbers suitable for the making of the bodies of urushi wares.
The history of urushi may be traced back thousands of years, numerous artefacts having been excavated proving that urushi culture already existed in Japan by around 4000 BC. The introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century brought with it the urushi crafts of continental Asia, later to be assimilated and transformed into urushi techniques unique to Japan.
Of all the urushi techniques developed in Japan, maki-e (sprinkled picture decoration) is the best known. It was used on a wide range of items ranging from Buddhist altar fittings to tableware, furniture and armour. This highly acclaimed technique developed dramatically from the 12th century onwards.
By the early modern period, highly decorative forms of lacquerwork such as Kodaiji makie were being made. Prospering trade with the outside world took Japanese urushi overseas, the beauty of its gold-against-black decoration fascinating Europeans so much so that they used the term 'japan' when referring to it.
Urushi art reached its zenith of sophistication and refinement in both design and technique during the Edo period. The beauty of urushiware of this time is best illustrated by wedding furniture and inro (tiered medicine containers). Although Kyoto was the main centre for the manufacture of what were mainly maki-e wares, in Edo (present day Tokyo), Kaga (present day Ishikawa Prefecture) and elsewhere the policies enacted by the different clan domains to encourage local industry gave rise to an enormous variety of urushi wares unique to each region. Wakasa-nuri, Tsugaru-nuri and Shunkei-nuri are typical examples of regional urushi types whose traditions have been handed down to the present day.
Japan's active participation in overseas international exhibitions from the Meiji period onwards saw urushi play an important role in the Japanese export trade. When craft sections were added to domestic exhibitions such as the Teiten, Bunten and Nitten, urushi work was finally recognized as a creative art. Today, urushi is well-established as an art form in which high levels of creativity are combined with the maintaining of traditional techniques. At the same time urushi plays an intimate role in the everyday life and culture of the Japanese in the form of items such as bowls, trays, tiered food boxes (jubako) and tea ceremony utensils.
Urushi work involves the use of the sap of the urushi tree to make, lacquer and decorate objects.
The first step is kakitori, the gathering of the urushi sap that flows in the xylem between bark and trunk. It seeps out when cuts are made in the bark using a special sickle (kakigama) and is scraped into a small bucket. The sap is milky white at first, but changes to a light brown on exposure to the outside air.
The extracted sap (arami urushi) is then filtered to make kiurushi (raw urushi), which is used for the foundation and final gloss layers. Kiurushirefined by stirring and heating is used for the lower and middle layers of lacquering and also in the decorating phase.
Generally speaking, urushi hardens at a temperature of 25℃ and a relative humidity of 70%.
As well as hardening at room temperature, urushi has another hardening point at the higher temperature of 80-150℃. High-temperature hardening of lacquer is known as yakitsukeho (lit. 'firing-on method') and is used on ceramic and metal items, for example inside cast iron tea ceremony kettles. Once it has hardened, urushi is extremely resistant to water, heat, acids and alkalis and protects the body to which it has been applied. Its viscosity also makes it an excellent adhesive.
The three main features of urushi are its viscosity, long hardening time and gloss. The beautiful lustre of hardened urushi is what makes it so special, and the various decorative techniques applied to the final gloss layer are only possible because of urushi's extended hardening time and viscosity, which allow the drawing of long fine lines.
Over the years special tools such as flat brushes and spatulas have been invented to make best use of these characteristics of urushi. Decorative techniques also require highly specialised tools such as maki-e brushes, dami brushes and funzutsu (sprinkling tubes).
The general term for urushi application in Japanese is kyushitsu, of which there are two main methods: one in which urushi is applied directly to a substrate without applying a foundation layer, and another in which the body is covered with a foundation layer that provides the base to which subsequent layers of urushi are applied.
In the case of the former, the body is coated either with semi-translucent suki-urushi or with black or coloured urushi. Variations of this technique include:
Fuki-urushi (wiped urushi), whereby kiurushi (raw urushi) is rubbed into the wooden body with a cotton cloth or brush and immediately wiped off before it hardens. Repetition of this process results in an urushi coating that protects and strengthens the wood and highlights the beauty of its grain.
Tamenuri, which involves the application of highly refined translucent amber suki-urushi that leaves the wooden body visible through the layers.
Shunkei-nuri, which involves the application of multiple coatings of urushi in such a way that its translucency is retained. This is achieved by mixing oil with urushi, the proportion of oil being gradually reduced with each consecutive layer.
Kakiawase-nuri, which involves the impregnation with kiurushi (raw urushi) or persimmon tannin of the wooden substrate prior to the application of black or coloured urushi.
Mehajiki-nuri, which refers to the application of urushi to open-grained wood like paulownia (kiri) or zelkova (keyaki) in such a way that it is repelled by the grain, which thus remains visible.
Nuritate refers to the practice of applying a finishing coat of urushi and allowing it to harden without subsequent polishing. The surface of the finished work has an attractively moist quality. Great care has to be given to the vessel shape and the choice of urushi materials used.
In the second type of kyushitsu, much care is taken over the preparation of the foundation layer. The process of kokusokai, which fills any cracks and fortifies the joints of the wooden body, is followed by nuno-kise, the covering of the substrate with hemp cloth, and jitsuke, the application of urushi mixed with clay to fill and make smooth the textile surface.
There are various different ways of preparing the foundation layer (makiji, honji and honkataji are the main methods), but in all cases several urushi coatings, initially rough and then of increasing fineness, are applied before polishing with a special kind of charcoal. Only after the foundation layer has been prepared does the application of urushiproper begin. This proceeds from lower (shitanuri) through middle (nakanuri) to upper (uwanuri) layers. Black is the most commonly used colour - to the extent that there is a Japanese term 'urushi black' (shikkoku) - but red (shu-nuri) and dark brown (urumi-nuri) are also found.
There are two ways of finishing urushi. In the case of nuritate-shiagethe final coating is left as it is. With roiro-shiage the finishing layer is polished first with special soft charcoal and then with fine abrasive powder mixed with oil. This is followed by the application of a suri-urushi coating (kiurushi (raw urushi) applied with a cotton cloth and rubbed off with washi paper) and further polishing. The high gloss thereby achieved is very different from the more elegantly subdued quality of a nuritate finish.
Japan is a country blessed with various kinds of high quality timber suitable for making objects of different kinds. Because of the ready availability of wood in Japan, it has always been the main material used for the bodies or substrates of urushi wares. Other substrate types include washi paper (shitai), bamboo (rantai), metal (kintai) and ceramics (totai).
Mokutai (wooden substrate) = There are many different ways of making wooden substrates, the best-known being joinery (itamono, or sashimono), carving from the block (kurimono), turning on a lathe (hikimono) and bentwood work (magemono).
(NB explanations of these methods are given in the Woodwork and Bamboowork chapter)
Kentai (coiled substrate) = Long strips of wood or bamboo are bent around in a continuous coil to create the desired shape. When individual hoops are placed on top of each other, the technique is known more specifically as magewa (hoop-building).
Shitai (paper substrate) = Successive sheets of washi paper are pasted over a mould with nori-urushi, a mixture of urushi and rice paste, or warabi-nori, a glue derived from bracken. Once the desired thickness has been obtained, the paper from is removed from the mould and lacquered. This is known as the harinuki method. When washi paper is applied to a wood or bamboo core and lacquered, the termikkanbari is used.
Rantai (woven bamboo substrate) = Bamboo is split into very thin strips and woven. Depending on the effect required, the woven pattern may be left visible or hidden by the application of a smooth foundation layer. Since the bark of bamboo repels lacquer, it has to be removed as part of the preparation process.
Kanshitsu (dry lacquer substrate) = Successive sheets of hemp cloth are pasted over a mould with nori-urushi, a mixture of urushi and rice paste, or a similar adhesive. Once the desired thickness has been obtained, the fabric form is removed from the mould and lacquered. This method allows a high degree of flexibility in the creation of different shapes.
Shippi (leather substrate) = Tanned leather stretched and dried on a wooden board is treated with urushi, removed from the board and treated again with urushi from the opposite side. Leather adheres well with urushi and can be stretched and shaped into seamless forms.
Kintai (metal substrate) = Metal substrates have the advantages of being robust and easily shaped.
There are many different techniques of urushi decoration, all of which make use of the viscosity and hardening properties of urushi. Maki-e(sprinkled picture decoration), in which pictorial effects are achieved through the use of gold and silver powder, is the best-known and most widely utilized of all urushi decorative techniques. Other major techniques are hyomon (metal sheet inlay), raden (mother-of-pearl inlay), chinkin (incised and gold-filled decoration), kinma (incised and colour-filled decoration) and choshitsu (carved urushi), whereby patterns are made by carving into a base consisting of over a hundred layers of coloured urushi.
Other methods include rankaku (decoration with crushed egg shell), bachiru (inlaying of stained and incised pieces of ivory), haku-e(decoration achieved by the application of gold or silver leaf to motifs painted in urushi), urushi-e (painting with pigments mixed with highly refined suki-urushi) and mitsuda-e (painting with a kind of oil paint made from oil and pigments). In addition to these there are countless other techniques, many of them using shibori-urushi (a highly viscous form of urushi) in what are generically classified as kawari-nuri (lit. 'alternative lacquering') techniques.
MAKI-E (SPRINKLED PICTURE DECORATION)
Maki-e is the most representative of all the urushi decoration techniques developed in Japan. The numerous processes involved are categorised according to shape and grade of the gold and silver powders used, the flatness or otherwise of the decorated surface, and the finishing techniques used after the sprinkling on of the metal powders.
Togidashi-maki-e (polished sprinkled picture decoration) = After the polishing of the nakanuri (middle urushi) layer, roughly textured metal powder is sprinkled on to a design drawn with urushi. This is allowed to harden before urushi is applied so as to completely cover the design. When this has hardened the surface is polished with charcoal so that the design emerges flush with the urushi surface.
Hiramaki-e (flat sprinkled picture decoration) = Finely textured metal powders are sprinkled on to motifs drawn in urushi on the uwanuri (upper urushi) layer. This is consolidated by the application of a further coat of urushi followed by polishing.
Takamaki-e (raised sprinkled picture decoration) = This involves the creation of raised areas with urushi or urushi paste (as used for the foundation layer) prior to the application of metal dusts, consolidation with urushi and polishing.
FURTHER TIPS FOR APPRECIATING URUSHI
The most genuinely Japanese of all the various techniques used in the art of urushi is maki-e (sprinkled picture decoration). Maki-e allows the exploration of a wide range of expressive modes and was, historically, the type of decoration that led Europeans to use the word 'japan' to refer to Japanese urushi and urushi work. The artistry of a work lies in the variety and appropriateness of the techniques used, its aesthetic qualities and the effectiveness with which it expresses the individual creativity of its maker.
Hyomon (metal sheet inlay)
Parts of the decorative scheme are cut out from thin sheets of gold or silver and fixed to the surface. Urushi is then applied and allowed to harden before being polished down.
Chinkin (incised and gold-filled decoration)
The surface is engraved with special blades and urushi is rubbed into the incised lines as an adhesive for the gold leaf that is then applied. Excess leaf is removed so that the gold remains only in the incised lines. Gold powder is sometimes used in place of gold leaf.
Kinma (incised and colour-filled decoration)
This technique is not dissimilar to chinkin (incised and gold-filled decoration), the main difference being that coloured urushi rather than gold is used to fill the incised lines, after which the surface is polished to make it flat and even. The technique was imported from Thailand and was perfected by Tamakaji Zokoku (1805-1869) in the late Edo period. While historically designs were created with yellow and red urushiapplied to fine line engraving on a black ground, the growing availability of artificial pigments and the development of dot and flat engraving techniques have allowed contemporary artists to explore new and subtler forms of expression.
FURTHER TIPS FOR APPRECIATING URUSHI
Both of these works make highly effective use of a range of different strokes and a wide variety of coloured urushi.
Choshitsu (carved urushi)
Repeated application of coloured urushi is used to build up a solid layer (100 applications give a thickness of 3 mm), which is then carved to produce a polychromatic design. When only red lacquer is used the technique is called tsuishu (red urushi carving), and when only black lacquer is used it is called tsuikoku (black urushi carving).
Raden (mother-of-pearl inlay)
The term derives from 'ra' meaning 'conch shell' and 'den' meaning 'to decorate'. Bivalves are used as well as conch shells. The mother-of-pearl from the inside of the shell is processed into thin flat layers and then cut into shape before being inlaid into or fixed to the surface. The technique used varies according to the thickness of the shell.
Zonseiwork combines painting in coloured urushi with the incising of outlines and details such as the veins of leaves.
Araidashi = A maki-e technique in which rather than applying an overall coating of urushi to a surface decorated with coarse gold powder, layers of urushi are applied locally to the areas of gold and then polished with charcoal powder.
Inro-buta-zukuri = A form of lid construction whereby the join between the lid and body of a box is completely flush as in an inro (tiered medicine container), the lid being held in place by a raised flange on the inside of the body.
Okime = A method of transposing maki-e patterns whereby a design drawn on thin paper is traced from behind with urushi and the paper placed on to the body of the work to be decorated.
Kabuse-buta-zukuri = A form of lid commonly found on cosmetic boxes (tebako) and writing boxes (suzuribako) whereby the lid slides over the sides of the box.
Kijigatame = Strengthening of the wooden substrate by impregnation with urushi.
Kokusozuke = Filling by spatula of spaces between joints and irregularities in the surface of the substrate with a paste made of mugi-urushi (wheat flour mixed with kiurushi (raw urushi)), sawdust and hemp fibre.
Dozuri = Polishing process in which a fine abrasive mixed with oil applied to a cloth is used to remove marks left by charcoal-polishing of the urushi surface.
Togikiri = A type of togidashi-maki-e (polished sprinkled picture decoration) involving the polishing out against a gold or silver ground of motifs drawn in pulverized black and coloured urushi.
Harigaki (or hikkaki) = A maki-e technique whereby a needle or sharp wooden or bamboo implement is used to scratch away part of a gold or silver sprinkled picture design before it has hardened.
Makiji = A foundation layer preparation method in which jinoko (finely powdered clay) is sprinkled on to urushi that has been applied by brush. This produces the hardest and most durable of foundation layers.
Roiro = A final polishing technique giving a high gloss undertaken after charcoal-polishing and dozuri (see above) carried out by rubbing with a very fine abrasive such as pulverized deer horn applied to a cloth moistened with urushi.