With True Lacquer

Hitting the Spot—Takashi Wakamiya
Situated on the western shore of the Noto Peninsula, Wajima is Noto’s largest community and home to Wajima lacquerware.  The history of the making of this craft dates back to at least the 14th century and may have started even earlier.  Wajima lacquerware is particularly well known in Japan because of its durability and fine decorations.

As is true of many other traditional crafts in Japan, Wajima lacquerware is an “industrial craft” and distinct from a “studio craft”.  As such much of the output of the workshops in Wajima is for everyday use or used on special occasions rather than simply being something to admire.  The difference is that it can be admired as well as used.  So perhaps we should place it on a par with very good pieces of Wedgwood china, or any other fine porcelain.

Tappers at work on a plantation of lacquer trees in the north of Japan.
Although these days some pieces may have a core of plastic, the very best work has a wooden core or carcass and is coated with true lacquer, not the synthetic equivalent but a material sourced from the sap of the lacquer tree—Rhus verniciflua (Toxicodendron vernicifluum).

Without getting too technical, this refined sap known in Japanese as urushi is applied many times to the wooden core of soup bowls and other pieces of tableware to produce a durable finish that can be left plain or decorated.  In Wajima that usually means decorations in gold and/or silver applied with true lacquer acting as an adhesive.

The whole process is time consuming and requires a good deal of skill and dedication on the part of the artisans.  Yes, artisans in the plural.  The division of labour in the production of a piece of Wajima lacquerware is especially true here although not unique in Japan.

A wooden core is turned....

Each process has its dedicated operative to process the wooden core; to apply a ground; to apply undercoats, middle coats and top coats and others still to do the decorations.  But that’s not all.  This natural refined sap, which hardens rather than dries like a paint, cures ideally in an environment which has a more or less stable temperature of 25˚C and 85% humidity.  Summer in Noto can naturally provide such conditions although not reliably enough and in winter the temperature is too low.  Nowadays as in the past, a cabinet can be used to maintain the ideal conditions.

....and then using a diatomaceous earth mixed with true
 lacquer, the wooden core is filled and sanded when dry.

Pieces of true lacquerware with a leaning toward “studio craft” may well have been produced by a single artisan in the past and it is not unheard of even today.  But to produce such an “industrial craft” as this in Wajima, there is a pool of specialists whose skills it would be almost criminal to overlook.

One person who has found a way to tap into this skill base is Takashi Wakamiya.  He was born not far from Wajima and his grandfather was engaged in the tapping of lacquer trees.  It was not surprising, therefore, that Takashi started down the road to becoming a lacquerware craftsman.

Takashi Wakamiya with some of his
During the late 1980s when Japan’s economy was booming, Takashi was working in a lacquerware workshop, which was trying to keep up the orders that were pouring in.  He was so busy he hardly had time to sleep!  But this did not stop him from considering his way forward in what has been a difficult market place, especially since the end of hostilities in the Pacific in 1945.

Having gained a real working experience of many of the techniques, which are particularly associated with Wajima lacquerware, Takashi gradually became able to commission pieces for work, work that would best be done utilising the skilled expertise of a number of different artisans.

So, Takashi has now become a designer/producer/director of the making of highly specialised pieces of lacquerware offered to a niche market.  The pieces have been snapped up by private collectors in various part of the world and have also been bought by the likes of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Lacquer Art Münster, Germany.

The price of Takashi’s pieces puts them out of reach of many people but the degree of experimentation in the work is bound to take time and as we know “time is money”.  The pieces are not to everybody’s taste, either.  But, for those who are willing not to pre-judge and who are able to recognise real quality, Takashi’s work really hits the spot.

A box in the shape of a sword guard in simulated rusty condition.
The interior of the box is something of a surprise given it's shabby exterior.

So many of the pieces produced by Takashi’s small band of skilled artisans are like samples of just what can be achieved with this refined sap, that was probably first used in a raw state simply as an adhesive during the Neolithic Age.

Ceramic tea bowl rendered
in true lacquer.
Tiny chips of gold and silver are placed with watchmaker

The interior of domed lid is finished with an incredible number of square and triangular chips of gold and silver.

True lacquer is a truly remarkable material and Takashi has been able to find equally remarkable ways of using its unique properties to reproduce the appearance of iron rust and ceramics, for example, not simple to mimic these materials but more perhaps as a way of saying “look what can be done with true lacquer”.  At a practical level Takashi is, therefore, opening up all kinds of creative possibilities.  He is also something of a magician as well as a technician, who does not miss an opportunity to inject a little humour into the work he commissions.  It is all well worth a considered look.

Below are four images courtesy of Takashi Wakamiya of an offertory box inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s rhinoceros drawing done in 1515 based on a written description of the animal.  True lacquer techniques are used to give the appearance of weathered copper with verdigris discolouration.

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Except where stated all photographs are by Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright