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A way of preserving and promoting the value of lacquerware in Wajima city

Wajima is a big city of Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. The City has a harbor and its position faces the Sea of Japan. This is the most famous city for lacquerware that is well-known as Wajimanuri. The local lacquerware is distinguished for its durability, which is achieved the highest level from extra technique of coating. To create a single piece of Wajima lacquerware requires a number of specialized artisans and dozens of processes. There is a very famous place which keep important roles in preserving and promoting the value of lacquerware in Wajima city is the Wajima Museum of Lacquerware (urushi nuri).

On the sunny morning of August 3th, 2016, our class from the Cultural Resource Management (CRM) program in Kanazawa University had a lucky opportunity to visit Wajima Museum of Lacquerware Art in Wajima city under the guidance of our teachers and Ms. Suzanne Ross who has a large amount of experience in making and promoting values of Wajimanuri and has lived in Wajima city more than 20 years.

The Museum includes two main floors, with the first floor is used a small space for the sale of Wajimanuri (museum shop) and the second floor is specially designed with 4 galleries and a free library. Here, we were listened to the detailed introduction about the museum from Ms. Suzanne Ross, we knew this is the only specialized museum in Lacquerware Art in Japan with a large number of lacquer artworks made by artisans in many different time periods. And many of those artists are recognized as "Living National Cultural Treasure".

The content of the museum exhibition includes not only the local lacquer products, but also have a lot of lacquer products from other locations in Japan and abroad. It also provided visitors an overview of the process of how to make Wajimanuri. The following diagram summarizes basic steps of the process when making a wooden bowl using Wajimanuri technique[1]:

In all of steps in making Wajima Lacquerware bowl above, the steps of decorating with Makie and Chinkin have given me a great pleasure. Maki-e is  specially a decorative technique which was made by two main steps, such as: drawing pattern in first time and then sprinkling gold, silver and colored powders onto surface of urushi. Chinkin is other decorative technique which made by two steps. The first step is to carve and express the images on the surface. The next step is to put the gold powder or gold foil into grooves.This is the most difficult technique when creating these art pieces of lacquer. Thus, the craftsmen who can apply this technique are people who spent many years of experience and rarely make mistakes. However, in recent years, the number of Maki-e craftsmen and Chinkin craftsmen are decreased.

Another particularly important factor that I need to mention here is urushi. Do you know what is urushi? It is the essential source as raw material to make special properties of Wajimanuri. Urushi is the name of lacquer in Japanese and is tree sap collected from the lacquer trees, which grow in the Orient. Lacquer trees grow in Japan, China, Korea, Myanmar, Vietnam and so on. The components of urushi trees in Japan is a little bit different from the ones found throughout, Myanma and Viet Nam. Most of urushi used for Wajimanuri is mainly produced in China because of the components.  In usually, it must take 12-15 years for an urushi tree to develope to collect its sap. Urushi trees planted throughout Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868) as commodities with high economic value. However, Wajima city was not the production center of urushi. Although a project began to plant the urushi tree in Wajima city to take the sap, the amount is not much so far.

Presently, Wajima lacquerware is designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Art in Japan and it is considered an art. The art of lacquer requires a lot of time creating products and the artisans must be experienced enough to take part in the creation processes of lacquerware. To become an artist in this field, the craftsmen need to gain experience and learn about the techniques of making lacquerware over a long time to be able to create out beautiful products. Some craftsmen who have their personal aesthetic try to produce newly lacquered works in different ways. Many of them have the potential to be good artists “Living National Treasures” in Japan. They are also the people who maintain and participate in the training of new generations to preserve and develop the traditional handicrafts. Through the observation of this museum's exhibitions, and also a participation in a lecture by staff in Wajima City Hall, I was impressed that local government and people of the city have a very high awareness and responsibility in maintaining and promoting the image of Wajimanuri.

This trip has given me the basic understanding of lacquer ware, but it is more important for me to know about the difficulty and complexity of making lacquer products. I also better understand the value of Wajimanuri. The value of Wajimanuri is not only from the good quality of urushi trees and sap, but also in shaping effort, meticulous decoration and the feats of artists who make it. Moreover, Wajimanuri is valuable by the efforts in maintaining and promoting traditional handicrafts by craftsmen, local government and local authorities to develop tourism. Thus the Wajima Museum of Lacquerware Art has succeeded in promoting the value of urushi lacquer ware to visitors.


[1]Wajimanuri Lacquerware, Traditional Japanese handicraft, pages 4-5.
diagram : the process to make Wajimanuri
Ms.Suzan lecture.jpg