True Lacquerware—the tops

One of Hiroyuki's three tier stacking food boxes.  Photo courtesy of Hiroyuki Yoshida
Hiroyuki Yoshida—Topcoat Man
In the past, it was often just one person who was responsible for making the things that were used on a daily basis.  Plates were made by a potter, who sourced the clay, fashioned it and finished it before it was put to use.  The same was true of wooden furniture but gradually the situation changed.  Nowadays the number of individuals involved in making something is often astronomical.  This is especially true if we consider research and development as well as marketing not to mention all those skilled persons involved in manufacturing the merchandise with which we now surround ourselves.

Measuring a block to be cut into disks.
Artists and craftspeople are, however, an exception to this rule even today.  They are quite often responsible for acquiring and processing all the materials needed in order to make something.  If they are not in total control, many are at least responsible for a major part of the work to be done.

In the past true lacquerware could well have been made by one craftsperson.  Today this is highly unlikely.  In fact as many as eight highly skilled individuals might be involved in the making of an item.

Marking out bowl size blanks.
If the work is to have a wooden core, a specialist timber merchant is responsible for cutting disks of wood from a suitable trunk or branch.  Then, if for example a soup bowl is to be made, blanks must be marked out on the disks and roughly cut down to size.  These rough cut blanks are then roughly turned either on a copy lathe or by hand.  Then comes a period of seasoning, which could also involve smoking although that is quite rare.  Then there is a further period of acclimatisation before the blanks are turned and finished ready for the next stage of the work.  So unless a artist/craftsman is willing to do all this work themselves, five individuals 
Rough trimming blocks into round blanks.
will already have been involved.

Next comes the application of a ground and primer, not to mention applications of middle coats before a piece reaches the stage of final top coats and decoration.

In Wajima the division of labour is highly developed and skilled craftspersons at each stage can make a living wage, each individual being paid by the next craftsperson in the chain.  There is a mutual respect and a bond of trust between all those involved and it is this which is the cornerstone of the craft industry in Wajima.

Seasoning rough-cut bowls.
Hiroyuki Yoshida is a specialist topcoat craftsman  He is the fourth generation of true lacquerware craftsmen in his family.  His great grandfather did decorative chasing work on true lacquer, whereas his grandfather and father were both topcoat craftsmen.  And it was from his father that Hiroyuki learned his craft although he also took a course at the local training centre where he learned something about all aspects of true lacquerware craft.

Small food trays when stacked form a checker patter.  Photo courtesy of Hiroyuki Yoshida.
Another of Hiroyuki's stacking boxes.  Photo courtesy of Hiroyuki Yoshida.
Looking at Hiroyuki's peerless work it is impossible not to muse as to whether the skills and mentality of Japanese craftsmen and women over the centuries are at the very foundation of Japan’s success in industrial fields.  The desire to produce something perfect in every way as well as the skills to achieve this goal are still strong and are an enduring work ethic in many fields of endeavour in Japan.  The making of true lacquerware is just one of those areas where trust, reliability, perfection and pride in doing a job well remain uppermost, even for Hiroyuki, a true topcoat man.

Hitomi Yoshida showing off one of Hiroyuki's bowls in their gallery-cum-shop in Wajima.
Unless noted all photos by Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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