Museum Dictionary

The Lacquer Artisan Sano Chokan

This story is about a craftsman named Sano Chokan, who lived in Kyoto at the end of the Edo period (1616-1867). Chokan called himself a lacquer artisan and was a master who held absolute confidence in the quality of his works.

According to one story, in Tenpo 6 (1835), Chokan, who was about forty years old at the time, heard that a certain Imazuya family was having a celebration, so he made lidded lacquer soup bowls and presented it to them. Mr. Imazuya was so happy to have received the bowls that he immediately put soup into the bowls and served them before his guests. However, when the guests tried to remove the lids, they would not come off. Thinking this strange, Mr. Imazuya asked Chokan about the bowls on the following day. Chokan replied laughing, "How careless I've grown in my old age." He then drilled a small hole in each lid to let air in to open the bowls. It is said that the soup inside the bowls was still warm. This happened because the bowls and lids were made to fit tightly together.

Later, Chokan covered the holes with a light coat of lacquer and gave them back to Mr. Imazuya, accompanied with a verse, "There may come a time when the poor work of this old man is rediscovered by later generations." He was self-confident indeed! After Chokan died, a newspaper article reported, in 1886, that these bowls went on the market and sold for an extremely high price.

However, Chokan was not famous from the start. He was born in Kansei 6 (1794) as Jisuke, the second son of a lacquer wholesaler Nagahamaya Jihei on Shinmachi and Sanjo Street in Kyoto. As a child, he demonstrated his intelligence by learning to read and write and reciting Japanese waka poems. We are told that Chokan lost his father at age twenty-one and inherited the family business, but he knew that his skills were still inadequate, so he set off on a study trip, in which he visited all the lacquer production sites in Japan and learned their techniques. He also visited feudal lords and the wealthy to view their treasures and acquire connoisseurship in the arts. His travels were said to have lasted for ten years.

When Chokan returned to Kyoto, he shut himself up at home, let his hair and beard grow wild, wore shabby clothes, and concentrated on creating new designs and produced works using various techniques. All of these works were said to have been of the highest quality, and many wealthy families sought after them. However, if Chokan was not satisfied with a commission, he would not make the object no matter how much money was offered to him. I suppose a master is a kind of eccentric.

Now, this bowl here is one of Chokan's masterpieces, which belongs to the Kyoto National Museum. It was donated to the museum by Fujiwara Chuichiro (n.d.), who loved Chokan's work.

  • Jikiro Food Container with Dragons and Phoenixes in Lacquer Paint and Makie
    (Kyoto National Museum)

This bowl, known as a jikiro in Japanese, is a vessel for food that is served before a meal. At a glance, one may wonder if it is really a Japanese food container. This was Chokan's intention. He used the Japanese lacquer techniques of makie (sprinkled metal design) and urushie ("lacquer painting") to imitate the decorative Chinese Ming-dynasty (15th-century) technique of cunxing (J., zonsei), in which designs are created with lacquer paint or engraved and filled with colored lacquer. He also used Chinese motifs, though they reflected the tastes of the Japanese of the Edo period. For example, dragons and phoenixes are imaginary, mythical animals that are often depicted in a stately, imposing fashion in China, however, the dragon and phoenixes here seem almost humorous. Moreover, arranged inside the bowl are the characters for "wealth" and "nobility," which are also auspicious Chinese motifs. Lastly, Chokan inscribed in Chinese characters "Made in the Kaei era (1848-54)" in the middle of the lid and "Made by Chokan" on the bottom of the bowl. This act of recording the date of production and artisan's name also imitates Chinese craftsmanship. Incidentally, the sixth year of the Kaei era is the year that Commodore Perry led his American fleet into Uraga Bay in Japan. This bowl comes from a period just before the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, when Japan became a modern state.

  • Jikiro Food Container with Dragons and Phoenixes in Lacquer Paint and Makie Lid
    (Kyoto National Museum)

I called Chokan a master and an eccentric, but he was also quite an educated man who absorbed the culture of his time-he practiced Zen Buddhism at the historic Daitoku-ji Temple in Kyoto, was friends with the renowned ceramicist Eiraku Hozen, and respected the Confucian scholar Oshio Heihachiro (1794-1837). Artisans such as Chokan were not uncommon during the Edo period.

Text by Akio HAINO, Department of Applied Arts

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