Lacquerware—Commentary and Impressions

While this is not actually going to be a piece of Wajima lacquerware, the style of reinforcing is the same.  The ridges on the wooden core provide a key for the start of many applications of true lacquer.  And none of the cloth or the wood grain will be visible in the finished work.
Lacquerware All-sorts—One
The aim of this series of posts on lacquerware is to introduce a number of different wares, which are not necessarily well-known either in Japan or overseas.  While I want to show how much diversity there is, I also hope to introduce my own reaction to the wares, as a way of perhasps gaining a better grasp of the aesthetic, functional and cultural aspects of one of Japan’s most ancient crafts.

Lacquerware is not produced on an industrial scale.  It is a craft, which is mostly handmade.  Some items are everyday pieces of tableware while others are examples of studio craft and are therefore one-off creations.  Nevertheless, the boundaries between these types of ware are blurred and may differ in each production centre, of which there are 41 up and down the country.

There is an insistence in Japan to call true lacquer “urushi”—the Japanese word for lacquer—even in English texts.

This insistence comes from a desire to make sure the public does not think that lacquerware is made using a paint or a synthetic material.  Personally I find the term “true lacquerware” most fitting, although I sometimes use “lacquer”.

Wajima Lacquerware
Wajima is among Japan’s top ten production centres of lacquerware.  For many it is the best especially for its robustness and quality of work as well as its makie decorations.

The ground being rubbed down with wet abrasive paper and charcoal.  The result—wood turns to stone!  Not literally but something closer to stone than wood 
when this important groundwork is finished.
A good deal of its strength comes from the ground and primer that is applied to a wooden core.  Using a mixture of true lacquer, a power of roasted diatomaceous earth and rice paste, the core takes on the characteristics of a stone—hard enough to be mercilessly rubbed down with wet and dry abrasive papers.  This produces a suitable substrate onto which many coats of true lacquer are then applied.

Additional reinforcing of surfaces and vulnerable parts of that core, like the lip of a soup bowl for instance, is carried out using a piece of open weave cloth soaked in lacquer (See on this blog—A One Day Apprenticeship dated 9/01/2016).

The finished product shows no sign of the amount of pains-taking work that has been completed in order to produce a piece of craftwork that is strong and a manifestation of perfection.

My reaction to this at first was one of disbelief—is it really necessary?  Is all the work justifiable?  Is the finished article any better than a piece of contemporary plastic?  The simple answer is “yes”.

Wajima lacquerware may be robust but if is is dropped on a stone floor it will, at the very least, chip the lacquer and may even crack the wooden core.  Such damage, however, can be repaired.

Raised to the mouth, there is direct contact with the true lacquerware bowl through our hands and one of our body’s most sensitive areas—our lips which tell us much.
Better than plastic? There is no question about it.  The touch and appearance of a good piece of true lacquerware is unmistakable. The way the colour and finish “mature” over time is a bonus.  It mellows.  What this sometimes means is that the complexity of the colour and texture of the finish will change and show signs of a “history” of use that adds to the appeal of the item.  This is seen as a desired effect.  I would liken it to the way a fine wine matures and the taste become more complex.

Functionally speaking, the ground/primer makes it possible to pour boiling water into a bowl, for example, with no fear that it will crack.  It also allows us to hold a bowl.

A very early piece of hand-painted English pottery, which sadly is not marked.  As a teacup and saucer, it follows the Chinese style of tea bowl and therefore has no handle.  The decoration, however, follows English traditions.

A soup bowl in a Western dinner service is not lifted to the lips.  And, simply speaking that is why a porcelain teacup has a handle.

The hand-painted decorations are deftly rendered, giving the cup and saucers an enduring lively character despite its signs of age.
When tea was first introduced into England, it was almost a medicine.  It was a green tea and therefore not drunk so hot.  The tea bowls were like those used in China and had no handles.  It was only later with the introduction of Indian teas made with boiling water that handles became necessary.

So, you may ask why are there no handles on tradition tea cups in Japan?  Because good tea is served using water at around 70 degrees centigrade.  The cup, therefore, is warn not hot.

The overall finish of a piece of true lacquerware means that the experience of bringing a bowl to the lips to drink some soup is a pleasant one.  What contributes to this experience is the weight of the bowl—even full it is neither too heavy nor too light.  Furthermore, our senses are stimulated by the sound of the bowl being placed back on a table.  Everything about a piece of lacquerware becomes a complete bodily experience—all of our senses are stimulated.

This is as important as what sound a car door makes when it is closed—does it produce a sound that instills a sense of trust, strength and reliability?  Car manufacturers think about that kind of thing.  Perhaps more craftspeople should do the same.

So there is much to consider when handling a piece of true lacquerware.  Whether it is a piece of Wajima lacquerware or not makes no difference.  But if it is, it will certainly have a character all of its own and of that, there is no doubt.

Along with many other traditional crafts, lacquerware is covered in Japan Crafts Source Book, originally published by Kodansha International.  Search Amazon.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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