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The Story of "Urushi" as Material

    Lacquerware is one of the traditional crafts in Japan. When we want to understand lacquerware, we need to know urushi (lacquer) as material. When I think about inheritance of crafts and the techniques, consider the materials making the craft at the same time. It’s because, the materials are necessary elements to making any craft in Japan. As you know, lacquerware can’t be produced without lacquer, in Japanese, urushi. However in most cases, urushi as material is not known to the peoplewhere it comes from and how to make it.On August 3rd, 2016, we visited the purification factory of urushi in Wajima city. And we got the knowledge not only lacquerware, but also urushi itself.

  Urushi is sap which can be drained from urushi trees. The urushi gathering experts scratch the bark of 10 to 50 years old trees by their knife, after this process, the sap starts draining and then raw urushi is collected. It is the only material which gets hard by humidity. One craftsman said, lacquerware has good compatibility with human skin, because the skin has humidity. Lacquer sap can be collected only in East Asia. In Japan, it has been used in human life from about 6800 years ago. Especially in Wajima area, it has been made as high-quality and artistic tableware.

   We entered the factory, and felt the odor. The odor is so unique that it can’t be compared to any another smell. Especially urushi in the liquid state has strong odor. In the factory, there were some machines for refining urushi and many barrels containing raw urushi which is not yet refined. By removing the vinyl covered surface of urushi, we could see the liquid of pastel brown color, and it has the property of viscosity such as honey. After a few minutes, the surface became brown. It shows, urushi starts hardening by contact with oxygen. So urushi always needs to be stored in a sealed condition. Its treatment requires delicacy.

   To make lacquerware, raw lacquer needs some process in the factory. It is because unprocessed urushi inevitably containts wood dusts and too much water inside. The amount of contained water is 30%, the viscosity is too low to use. For that reason, first, the dusts are removed by using the centrifuge with cotton. After that, by stirring for a long time and adding heat, the amount of the water become 2-4% (The name of this process is “kurome”). 27kg of urushi in the barrel decreases to 15kg through these processes.

   The condition of urushi differs depending on collected area and the expert who collected it. And several thickness of urushi liquid is produced by kurome process. Hardening speed changes according to the humidity and temperature, so craftsman uses different kind of urushi season by season.

   Traditionally in Japan including in Wajima, from before Edo era, major percentage of lacquer has been imported from China to be used. There had been only a few lacquer trees in Japan, so it was difficult to collect enough urushi. Nowadays in Wajima, still 90% urushi imported from China is used to make lacquerware. But, the price of Chinese urushi rose drastically in the last five years, resulting from economic growth of China. In my opinion, Wajima will need to grow urushi tree in its own area in the future in order to keep making lacquerware. Andtraining of growing the experts who collect urushi is needed at the same time.

  There are abundant information to learn the techniques and historical background of lacquerware at the Wajima Museum of urushi Art and the Institute of Wajima Lacquer Arts in Wajima city. However, strategies for stable supply of urushi as material has not been carried out at the moment. Urushi liquid mostly isn’t gathered, and there is only one expert who gathering urushi.

  But, Wajima city already has recognized the importance of “urushi as material”. For example, Wajima has produced candlesmade of urushi wax. Urushi wax is extracted from urushi seeds. Traditionally, making the wax was part of the occupation of urushi gathering expert in the past. The wax was produced from Edo era to the beginning of Showa period, but it gradually became obsolete by the change of the society. But just recently, as the value of it has recognized by the craftsmen and customers as less smoke-producing wax, finally the wax started being product again. This new products don’t have a directly effect to stable supply of urushi, butmay realize as material than lacquerware. The culture of lacquerware include many aspects not only its history, but also many materials and tools to make a lacquerware. We shouldfocus like these elements surrounding lacquerware to consider as cultural resorces. (E.A.)