Lacquerware (漆器, shiki) is a Japanese craft with a wide range of fine and decorative arts, as lacquer has been used in urushi-e, prints, and on a wide variety of objects from Buddha statues to bento boxes for food.
A number of terms are used in Japanese to refer to lacquerware. Shikki (漆器) means “lacquer ware” in the most literal sense, while nurimono (塗物) means “coated things”, and urushi-nuri (漆塗) means “lacquer coating.”
The history of lacquerware in Japan reaches back to the Jōmon period.
The sap of the lacquer tree, today bearing the technical description of “urushiol-based lacquer,” has traditionally been used in Japan. As the substance is poisonous to the touch until it dries, the creation of lacquerware has long been practiced only by skilled dedicated artisans.
Lacquer was used in Japan as early as 5000 BCE, during the Jōmon period. Evidence for the earliest lacquerware was discovered at the Kakinoshima “B” Excavation Site in Hokkaido. These objects were discovered in a pit grave dating from the first half of the Initial Jomon period (approx. 7,000 years ago).
Lacquering technology may have been invented by the Jomon. They learned to refine urushi (poison oak sap) – the process taking several months. Iron oxide (colcothar) and cinnabar (mercury sulfide) were used for producing red lacquer.
Lacquer was used both on pottery, and on different types of wooden items. In some cases, burial clothes for the dead were also lacquered.
Many lacquered objects have turned up during the Early Jomon period; this indicates that this was an established part of Jomon culture.
Experts are divided on whether Jomon lacquer was derived from Chinese techniques, or invented independently. For example, Mark Hudson believes that “Jomon lacquer technology was developed independently in Japan rather than being introduced from China as once believed”.
One of the most outstanding lacquer objects is the Tamamushi Shrine from middle of the seventh century AD. The shrine is made of lacquered hinoki or Japanese cypress and camphor wood, both native species. While commonly referred to as urushi, since the Meiji period some scholars have argued instead that the paintings employ the technique known as mitsuda-e, an early type of oil painting, using perilla (shiso) oil with litharge as a desiccant.
Many traditional crafts and industrial arts produced throughout Japanese history were initially influenced by China, and afterward experienced various native stylistic influences and innovations over the centuries. The Edo period (1603–1868) saw an increase in the focused cultivation of lacquer trees and the development of the techniques used. In the 18th century colored lacquers came into wider use. One of the most outstanding masters of lacquer was Ogata Kōrin. The city of Kanazawa is known for its lacquerware.
The export of lacquer to the west lead to it being historically referred to as Japan, analogous to China for Chinese ceramics.