If you ever visit the Kyoto National Museum, look
for lacquerware like this in Room 15 (Lacquerware), on the 2nd Floor
of the New Exhibition Hall.
Have you ever gone hiking in
the woods and broken out in a rash from some wild plant, such as
poison ivy? When you break out, your skin gets red and very itchy,
doesn't it? One plant that will almost certainly make you break
out is the poison sumac tree, or lacquer tree, which grows in Japan
and other Asian countries.
These days, however, even if you go hiking in the mountains in Japan,
you probably would not break out from the lacquer tree. This is
because the number of lacquer trees has greatly decreased in recent
years. While this may be a good thing for hikers, it is a sad thing
for Japanese culture. The loss of the lacquer trees is one of the
reasons that the traditional art of lacquerware-making has almost
Lacquerware is made using the sap of the lac tree. The raw lacquer
sap has the bad quality of making people break out in a rash, but
when used properly, it has very good qualities too! If you paint
lacquer sap onto, for example, a wooden bowl or tray, it will dry
to a very hard, durable finish with a rich, beautiful sheen. Lacquer
can turn a simple dish into a work of art! Even as far back as the
Jomon Period, from 10,000 B.C. to 300 B.C., the Japanese painted
lacquer onto combs, bowls and other implements. From ancient times
through the Edo Period, the Japanese used lacquer to make their
As I said before, the lacquer tree grows not only in Japan, but
in Southeast Asia, China, Korea and other parts of Asia. The lacquer
tree does not, however, grow in Europe or America. In the West,
lacquerware was often called "japan," showing that lacquerware-making
is an Asian art.
The history and culture of Japan, however, are not nearly as old
as those of China! From the very beginnings, when Japan was still
called the Yamato Taikoku and was ruled by the Empress Himiko, Japan
has looked up to China and imported Chinese culture. This also relates
to lacquerware; the Japanese actually learned the art of making
lacquerware from China!
In the Shosoin Treasury (large warehouses in the city of Nara, which
have some of the oldest art objects in Japan) almost all the lacquerware
pieces were imported from Tang Dynasty (8th Century) China! These
works were imported into Japan together with the religion of Buddhism.
Here, however, let's talk not about the Chinese lacquerware that
came to Japan in the 8th Century, but a kind of lacquerware that
came into Japan from China in the 14th Century, during the Kamakura
Period. The lacquerware I am referring to is called "carved
There are several types of carved lacquerware, including red carved
lacquerware, black carved lacquerware, and polychrome carved lacquerware.
Carved lacquerware is made by painting layer-upon-layer of lacquer
onto, for example, a tray until the layers build up a good degree
of thickness. The best pieces have hundreds of layers! Then the
artisan carves a design into the thick, hard lacquer.
Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Tray
with Blue Magpies and Camellias
China, Yuan Dynasty (14th century)
Diameter 32.4cm, height 3.5 cm
Important Cultural Property (Korin-in Temple, Kyoto)
This technique was brought to Japan from Yuan Dynasty China in the
14th Century, during Japan's Kamakura Period, together with Zen
Buddhism. The Zen Sect of Buddhism (called Chan in Chinese) took
root in Japan in the city of Kamakura, in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture.
Today, many Zen temples in Kamakura and other parts of Japan still
have antique pieces of carved lacquerware that have been used down
through the ages for Buddhist ceremonies. Many of the works remaining
are implements used for burning incense, such as trays on which
to place the incense burners and incense containers to hold the
incense. Thanks to the careful preservation of the Zen temples,
these works of Chinese Buddhist lacquerware are still around today!
Carved Black Lacquer Tray with Volute Pattern
China, Yuan Dynasty (14th Century)
(Korin-in Temple, Kyoto)
Now, let's talk about how to make carved lacquerware. First, in
order to build up a thick layer of lacquer, the craftspeople had
to paint hundreds of layers of lacquer onto a thin wooden core!
But they couldn't paint on all those layers at once; each layer
had to dry for several days before the new layer could be applied.
That is a lot of work! It probably took years just to build up the
proper amount of lacquer!
After the hundreds of layers of lacquer had built up to become smooth
and hard like jade, the craftspeople had to carve into the layers
with a sharp knife. This was hard work too! The Chinese craftpeople
must have had a lot of patience and dedication to do such difficult
and tedious work! Such carved lacquerware could only have been produced
by a people with as much perseverance as the Chinese!
Japanese craftspeople studied these techniques with great tenacity.
One man named Tsuishu Yozei formed a school of lacquerware artists
in the Muromachi Period that still exists today! However, the Japanese
were very smart, or maybe just very sly, and they found a new way
to produce the same effect as the Chinese carved lacquerware with
much less work! Instead of carving designs into a hard, thick layer
of lacquer, they first carved designs into wood and then coated
the wood with a thick layer of lacquer so that it looked as if it
had been carved! This new craft was given the name Kamakura bori,
or "Kamakura carving." Perhaps the Japanese did not have
as much patience as the Chinese. But they created a very interesting
new art form!
Can tell the difference between the carved lacquerware tray and
the Kamakurabori incense container below?
Carved Black Lacquer Tray with Volute Pattern
Diameter: 37.2 cm Height: 5.4 cm
China, Yuan Dnasty (14th Century)
(Kyoto National Museum)
Incense Container with Volute Pattern in Kamakurabori
Muromachi Period, 16th Century
(Konrenji Temple, Kyoto)
Text by Akio Haino, Department of Fine Arts
Illustrations by Satoshi Ichida, Department of Public Relations
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives