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Contents History and Culture of Wajima-Nuri 
 
An Urushi Culture Developed in Asia

Urushi is Part of the Underlying Culture of Japanese People

An Urushi Culture from Time Immemorial is Preserved through Wajima-nuri

Durable Elegance, Refined Luster and Technique

The Travels of Wajima-nuri
―with the Spirit of the Nushiya
 
 

An Urushi Culture Developed in Asia


The deciduous urushi tree is distributed throughout Japan, China and Korea. By carving short grooves into the trunk of the urushi tree and other similar species, sap can be collected. The use of this sap as a coating material has become well established in many Asian countries.
When incisions are made in the tree to the layer of urushi sap between the bark and the trunk, a milky-white colored sap starts to ooze out. The sap is collected from June to November and about 100~150ml of urushi can be obtained from one tree. Ki urushi is the name given to unprocessed urushi after it has had impurities removed and this can be refined into nayashi and kurome urushi (in which the water content has been reduced by about 3%). In an environment with a suitable humidity(65~80%)and temperature(20~30℃)it hardens into a strong coating with a beautiful luster.

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Urushi is Part of the Underlying Culture of Japanese People
A Coating of Sensitivity and Healing




Throughout history urushi has been used in a wide variety of ways such as personal adornments, religious items, eating utensils and furnishings for at least 9000 years since the early Jomon period. It has also had a deep influence on the evolution of the spiritual culture of the Japanese and as a coating medium it is believed to possess spiritualproperties. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that urushi is one part of the underlying culture of the Japanese people. A hardened coating of urushi is almost completely unaffected by hydrochloric acid and nitric acid which dissolve iron, aqua regia (nitrohydrochloric acid) which dissolves both platinum and gold or hydrogen fluoride which dissolves both ceramics and glass. The degree of transparency and rich luster of the urushi coating increases with time. It has been referred to as a coating material of both sensitivity and healing. With the decorative techniques of maki-e and chinkin which employ such techniques as raden (shell inlay), it becomes possible to create urushi works of art that conjure up a world that goes beyond space and time.

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An Urushi Culture from Time Immemorial is Preserved through Wajima-nuri 
Wajima is an area where the urushi culture of Japan is particularly concentrated. Wajima is the biggest producer of wood-based urushiware in Japan and in 1977 Wajima-nuri became the only urushiware producing area in the country to be designated as an important intangible cultural asset by the Japanese government. The main distinguishing feature of Wajima-nuri is its durable undercoating that is achieved by the application of multiple layers of urushi mixed with powdered diatomaceous earth (ji-no-ko) onto delicate zelkova wooden substrates. These characteristic traits have been identified in a bowl that was excavated from a site dating back to the Muromachi period (fifteenth century), a building plaque with the name of a nushiya (urushi producer) that dates back to 1476 which has survived in the Juzo Shrine in Wajima, and a vermilion door that dates back to the establishment of the shrine in 1524. These artifacts suggest that Wajima-nuri had already been established by the latter part of the medieval period.

In the early part of the Edo period (seventeenth century) Wajima-nuri spread to the Kyoto and Osaka area and by the latter half of the eighteenth century a division of labor in the production stages had become established and high quality vermilion household tableware sets for ceremonial occasions were being mass produced. The decorative techniques of chinkin and maki-e also continued to develop. Wajima is blessed with geographical features that make it a fine natural harbor and through its historical importance as a port on the sea route between Hokkaido and Osaka, the reputation of Wajima-nuri spread and its market expanded to all parts of Japan. As a result of the Meiji Restoration, the importance of Kyoto, Edo and Owari as large production areas collapsed and craftsmen from many areas were encouraged to come to Wajima which brought further prosperity to the town. After the Second World War, because the importation of urushi from China was halted, the majority of urushi production areas converted to synthetic resins but Wajima-nuri continued to be produced with the same traditional techniques and new areas for urushi products such as panels and tables began to be developed. Even today, Wajima still continues to produce many fine urushi artists.

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Durable Elegance, Refined Luster and Technique

  

The most important supporting factor in the long history of Wajima-nuri is without doubt the reliability of its technique. Each stage of the production process is carried out by specialist craftsmen in a division of labor at each production stage to accomplish elegant urushiware with a beautiful luster. First, the most appropriate kind of wood is chosen from a number of varieties. Next, in the process of kyushitsu (the application of layers of urushi) cloth is used to reinforce the rims, and undercoats mixed with ji-no-ko are applied. In total, there are from between 75 to 130 stages in the process all carried out by hand. In addition, decorative techniques are also employed such as chinkin, where gold is fixed into carved patterns on urushi surfaces using urushi as an adhesive, and maki-e in which patterns are drawn with urushi and then gold or silver powder is sprinkled on to make designs which set off the urushiware with vivid color.

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The Travels of Wajima-nuri ―with the Spirit of the Nushiya
The historical background to the success of Wajima-nuri lies in the activities of the nushiya. Because they travelled by sea to distant places to sell their products, the nushiya would educate themselves to a high degree to go out into the world as men of culture in their effort to secure customers. As a result of the unique and ingenious experience that they accumulated, the name of Wajima-nuri today enjoys the status of being the representative urushiware of Japan.



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Wajima Museum of Lacquer (Urushi) Art    ■11, Shijugari, Mitomori-machi, Wajima City, Ishikawa 928-0063
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