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Report on the talk ‘A cry from Wajima’

The Third Thursday Lecture on the 15th of February was dedicated to a report on the current situation in Wajima, Noto prefecture. On the 1st of January, a devastating earthquake hit the area. The aim of the lecture was to explain the impact of the disaster on the Japanese lacquer, or urushi, industry.

We learned with great sadness that 240 people are reported to have died, 14,000 people have been evacuated to temporary shelters, and many of the buildings in Wajima have been destroyed. Simon Kaner expressed his deepest condolences to everyone who has been impacted by this disaster in Japan. Simon and Masami Yamada, Curator of Japanese Art at the V&A Museum, have been reaching out to colleagues involved in the urushi lacquer industry in the Noto peninsula to find out about the damage and disaster recovery efforts. We were honoured to receive a greeting by Her Imperial Highness Princess Akiko. Murose Kazumi, who specialises in urushi and is a holder of Intangible Cultural Property (also known as a Living National Treasure), sent a recorded address. His son Murose Tomoya, who also specialises in urushi, sent a video from Wajima showing the scale of the destruction. This important report made clear the impact of the disaster on the artists and craftspeople who live and work in Wajima, and on the future preservation of Japanese urushi lacquerware production and culture.

The lecture began with an introduction to the area, described by Simon as a ‘microcosm of traditional rural Japan’ with an economy based on farming, fishing, tourism, and lacquer. Wajima has a climate of high humidity and is surrounded by mountains with forests. These features make it an ideal location for urushi lacquer production. There are around 1,000 craftspeople involved in urushi production in Wajima today, with many workshops concentrated in the centre of the city. Wajima lacquerwares are sold in shops and are sent to fulfil orders all over Japan. Following the 7.6 magnitude earthquake at 16.10 on New Year’s Day, many of the workshops, studios, and shops were destroyed or burned down. Older Japanese buildings, especially those made from wood with heavy tiled roofs, can be more susceptible to earthquakes and fire. One of the buildings that was destroyed was the nushi no ie or ‘Lacquerer’s House’, which was built in the late 19th century and was extensively lacquered inside. It was donated to the city last year, but now this important part of Wajima’s heritage has been lost.

Image of nushi no ie © Masami Yamada.

Masami Yamada specialises in Japanese urushi lacquerwares in her role at the V&A Museum, and she introduced how they are made. The first step is to extract urushi sap from a tree which is native to Japan, Korea, and China. Layers of the treated urushi are painted onto a wooden substrate, for example a bowl or a box. The substrate is carefully prepared and reinforced to ensure that it will not crack or warp. The urushi is left to harden in a controlled damp environment, usually in a wooden cabinet, kaiten buro, made for this purpose. The lacquerware is polished in-between layers, and then a final polishing is carried out once any decoration has been added. Each stage of the urushi lacquer production process requires expert knowledge and training. In Wajima, there are workshops in which craftspeople specialise in each stage of the production process and collaborate to create the urushi lacquerwares. There are also individual artists who carry out each stage of the process themselves. Wajima urushi lacquerwares are traditionally decorated using the maki-e (sprinkled gold or silver powder) or chinkin (gold or silver leaf applied into carved grooves) techniques. A unique feature of Wajima urushi lacquerwares is the inclusion of powdered earth, jinoko, to strengthen the undercoating of urushi. Another feature is the application of fabric for further strengthening, or nunokise.

Image © Tatsuki Wakamiya. An example of Wajima lacquerware can also be found here.

We learned from Murose Kazumi that Wajima plays a key part in the preservation and promotion of urushi lacquer culture in Japan. The Wajima Institute of Lacquer Arts was founded in 1967 to train and support the next generation of urushi lacquer artists and craftspeople. The Wajima Museum of Urushi Art is the only museum in Japan which specialises in urushi lacquer. Students come to Wajima from all over the country to train. Wajima represents Japan’s urushi lacquer industry as a large percentage of the people who are involved in the industry live there. Those who work and live in Wajima are just beginning to be able to assess the damage to their workshops. The recovery of the Wajima urushi lacquer industry will be a challenge because of the unique production process. It requires specialists who can produce the urushi and the gold and silver powders, make the wooden substrates, apply the urushi layers, and create the decoration. If it is not possible to carry out one of the steps or obtain one of the materials, the lacquerwares cannot be made. The long-term aim will be to restore workable conditions for the urushi lacquer artists and craftspeople in Wajima. Over the coming months, we will hopefully be able to hear more from them about this process.

With thanks to Emiko Oki for providing feedback on this report, and Masami Yamada for the images.

Naomi Collick

Curator, Chiddingstone Castle

A recording of this talk is available on request – please contact sisjac@sainsbury-institute.org for more information.