Urushi: Japan's Best Kept Secret
It's not that Japan is trying to keep this a secret - but it is puzzling that Japanese Urushi has largly remained one of the best kept ones to most of the outside world.
Perhaps it has remained a secret because Urushi is not a craftArt for the impatient. Perhaps it's remained one because Urushi craftArt does not typically fall into the sights of the casual lover of all-that-is-Japanese.
Yet, like many amazing craftArts, it has probably greatly remained a "secret" because to truely appreciate, relish and be drawn in to its subtle beauty, and to also enjoy the lure of its luster and glow, we need to know a bit more fully about it...something that require more than just a simple translation. In fact, even those foreigners living in Japan for many years still often ask.....so,...
What IS Urushi?
A Short Definition of Japanese Urushi Lacquer
Urushi, or “Japanese lacquer,” is both a natural sap from the Urushi tree, and a traditional craft art of Japan. Since prehistoric times (over 10,000 years ago), lacquerers have been collecting the toxic, sticky, and milky-looking tree sap, processing it, and applying it to various objects both for utilitarian and decorative purposes. Early uses included applying it as a glue to affix spearheads to the rod. However, it was during the Edo Period (1603-1867) that Urushi developed into the decorative, Japanese craft art as it is known today.
How the Urushi CraftArtist Works
Briefly, a craft specialist brushes the refined Urushi sap, layer after many, many thin layers onto a prepared substrate. A substrate is often wood, but given Urushi’s amazing sticky versatility, can also of be of textile, paper, pottery metal and more.
Each and every layer is “dried” under careful conditions that require both heat and humidity. The sap may be colored with pigment, and objects may be decorated using one of hundreds of different techniques such as Maki-e (sprinkled gold, silver powders) and Raden (inlay shells). The cured sap is also a strong adhesive, is waterproof and extremely durable often lasting for future generations to use and enjoy. Traditionally, producing a finished object often takes a craft artist weeks, months and sometimes even up to a year or more.
Dive Into the Deeper Story of Urushi
1. What is Urushi Made From? Something Toxic
It is probably best to think of Urushi, as in a category all of its own. As indeed it is! Urushi, unlike its buggy, or chemical-composed cousins, is a natural, organic sap exclusively derived from a living tree...a tree, it should be added, of the same name. Additionally, Urushi, unlike any other “lacquer”, contains what has been described as, an almost magical, oily compound called Urushiol. When the tree bark is scored, the sap is produced and then tapped.
Sap for Urushi products is still today produced in Japan, at the same time, many modern alteliers also use sap from other parts of Asia that also boast long traditions of Urushi lacquer craft art. Yet, whether it’s an object of traditional value or a new creation with more contemporary appeal, it’s the urushiol that then creates the lovely, silky and lustrous experience of Urushi. It seems fitting then, that in English Urushi means both “lovely” and “moisten, enrich.” (Matsuda, 2001, p. 67-8). And this all thanks to the special sap of a living tree!
Urushiol, it turns out, has a few amazing and beautiful surprises - but with a twist – and some of which are a bit, well, peculiar. For some folks, one such peculiar surprise turns out to be rather an unpleasant one. If you’ve ever had an encounter with poison ivy you’ll understand why. Urushiol, in its very raw, liquidy, state, can cause quite a rash..a bit toxic it is! Master Gonruku Matsuda, Japan’s Natural Treasure, Urushi Craftsman (1896-1986), even describes cases where a susceptible person might break out in a rash just passing by an Urushi studio! (Matsuda, 2001). Those are some potent fumes! You might wonder then, how can anyone use it? But, as any dedicated Urushi craft-artisan will tell you, it's quite possible. Repeated and prolonged exposure can produce a welcomed immunity to this uncomfortable surprise...and gloves can help!
The Wetter the Drier
Urushiol has another very peculiar trait -- and it’s a bit counter-intuitive. Think rain.
In Japan, the rainy season starts in about mid-June quickly ushering in a great burst of green and hydrangeas and other living things. The rainy days then typically enjoy a prolonged stroll, on into and often through to the end of July -- and sometimes even on into August!
In Japan, the rainy season here is wetter than wet. The air is filled with so much moisture, that inside mushrooms sometimes spring from the wooden windowsills. Outside the summer temperatures continue to rise and with it ... the humidity. Every type of weed is rushing out and about, thrilled with the sauna, trying to fill every corner of the yard, and claim every space. Bedsheets and cotton clothes feel perpetually moist, and the paper in your printer curls and jams. Wetter than wet incredibly humid at times and rather unpleasant!
But, what may be uncomfortable for we mere humans, for Urushi -- it’s true heaven! For the urushiol-rich sap to properly dry and harden, it needs to be wet – hot and humid that is! Take any Urushi-coated object to the Sahara Desert and be prepared to wait for, well, forever because it would not dry at all! (Matsuda, 2001).
That’s because Urushi does not “dry” in the conventional sense, but rather it “cures.” As the moisture in the sap evaporates, it absorbs large amount of oxygen, and this process transforms the object from its liquidy state into a solid as it hardens or cures. So, a hot, sticky sauna - 23 Celsius and 80% humidity to be exact - is greatly to its liking. These very specific conditions are necessary for urushiol to work its magic. As Japan’s National Treasure, Master G. Matsuda (since passed) put it best: “It is urushiol that proves the driving force behind the mysterious powers of Urushi. It is the urushiol that produces the special drying qualities that [also] makes Urushi supernaturally hard and durable.” (Matsuda, pg. 82).
Many craft artists still rely on natural, humid climate conditions, but these days, modern artists can also control drying conditions throughout the year with dust free, moisture controlled “drying” rooms. In expert hands, the mysterious powers of urushiol help the craft artist create an object of warmth, a brilliant luster, brightness, and shine. (Back to Top)
2. What Forms Can Urushi Take? Anything
First, let's engergize with a couple of questions for you lovers of arts and craft:
To you, what is a block of wood? Or a flat piece of paper? Two simple forms? Something more?
For many creative craft artists, these are nothing less than boundless possibilities -- for expression! The block of wood could become a playful bangle, edgy and bright. And the flat piece of paper, a pretty Japanese Urushi crane ready to take flight! So where does Urushi come in here?
It's probably one of Urushi's most truely amazing qualities: the magic ability to dress everything up and take on any shape - it's a true shape shifter! But how does it do it?
Well... it sticks ... and to almost anything an artist desires!
By itself, this material is a shapeless, thick, gooey, liquidly mess, and obsessively clingy. Yet for Urushi, this is not a personality flaw. Instead, it’s a unique characteristic that allows it to take on any form — often three dimensional forms — applied layer by layer by layer over and over again, "drying" and hardening between each.
Urushi is so sticky, in fact, some of the first uses thousands of years ago, were as a glue and as a filling material. As scholar, N. Matsumoto (p. 208, 2018) notes, “This feature made it possible to create new kinds of objects that humans had never obtained before.”
This sticky quality also allows anything to cling to it as well - Urushi loves to cuddle: gold or silver leaf, titantium colorful metal, bits and pieces of seashells such as ablone, turban or pearl. Forms simple or complex, round, or square, contoured or flat, are all game as this fantastically sticky characteristic transforms almost anything into a elegant object of daily use and any object of traditional or modern artistic and fearless expression.
Consider how it graces ...
The cool, smooth surfaces of a speciality silver spoon, knife or fork,
A colorful sturdy leather bag
Graceful pearl drop earrings ... or ...
Urushi, it seems, is an incredible show off! A Getty Museum documentary praises this amazing versatility in this way: “…unlike any other substance, [Japanese] lacquer can be painted, carved and molded, lending itself to a wide range of artistic expression.” (Getty Museum, 2012).
Sticky Liquid Becomes Form, then ... Expression!
As Urushi takes on form, it transforms into something that we touch -- and then in turn, into something that also touches us.
If you’re a lover of craft art, like me, you’d probably agree that even inanimate forms can awaken emotions. I think this is especially true with Urushi. It seems to have a natural, almost human warmth to it. As an object dresses up in Urushi’s sleekness, its lustrous color, its silky warmth and shine, we might feel an emotional connection to it. Each curve or angle seems to evoke different emotional experiences. Might one shape, one form make you feel differently than another? One shape, perhaps, triggering sparks of joy. Another kindling a pleasant feeling of nostalgia.
A perfect circle might be considered a form of full of calm and order. Yet, a bright, sparkly yellow, wavy Urushi bangle might throw us all off a bit – a tickle of chaos, a quirky display of pleasure a sense of life's joys -- Its off-balance form dangling playfully about our wrists creating a sense of intimacy and connection -- a secret shared.
And though you may have yet to hold a piece of Urushi in your hands, others have describe the experience of Urushi like this: for “…it is impossible to hold a lacquer piece and not feel the sensuous curvature of its shape, the glassy smoothness of its surface.” (Getty Museum, 2012).
Certainly, an Urushi object doesn’t have “life” in the traditional meaning of the word. But it seems to have spirit. This ability to take on ANY form has Urushi artists pushing the boundaries of expression. Genta Ishizuka, winner of the prestigious international Loewe Foundation Craft Prize (2019), expresses a new way of thinking about Urushi with "Surface Tactility #11" . In expert hands, with care and imagination, Urushi can transform into bangles, boxes, bowls, shells and rings, and astounding abstract art …. eliciting emotional experiences! (Back to Top)
3. Who Makes It? Patient CraftArtist
Artist and Urushi have been happily together for a very long time. For about 10,000 years - give or take a thousand or so! So how did this marriage all begin? Well, historians don't know exactly, but there are quite few very good clues! On the floor of several pre-historic burial sites, archaeologists have uncovered bits and pieces of Urushi's long history.
Though we cannot really know the craft artists of long ago, from these artifacts, we can assume that Urushi has been in hands, hearts, and human minds for an awfully long time. These first finds are intriguing as they indicate very early on creativity-of-form – objects of personal adornment as well as of practical use – and the deliberate use of color. (N. Matsumoto, 2018).
One thing is for sure, Urushi, that beautiful 10,000-year-old, is nothing without her faithful partner: the craft artist and amazing creativity and craftsmanship.
A Bit of Drama
Given this handicraft's troublesome nature we might assume this relationship would not be an easy one. What must the craft artist do to create a relationship that endures? Well, sometimes it requires a bit of negotiation!
We now know that Urushi's beauty needs special care - she is a bit delicate -- requiring humidity and heat, only taking on her luster and shine after layers upon layers are painstakingly applied. But she shamelessly demands much from the craft artist and is constantly asking for patience, creativity, and a great abundance of time. Though this love seems quite conditional, pampered and nurtured, Urushi will give gifts of luster, glow, color, pearly shine, strength, durability, longevity, endurance – just about everything you would want in a partner!
For the craft artist, the skill and craftsmanship start with choosing a form -- a substrate. And given Urushi's sticky nature, almost any material will do! Artists, however, often use wood as it is both light and readily carved into any shape.
Many a traditional craft artists will hand brush layer, upon thin layer, upon thin layer of Urushi sap – drying each thoroughly in between the layering slowly “growing” the object over time. These days, craft artists may also use precision, specialty spraying techniques to apply the Urushi.
Layering is extremely demanding, requiring the artist and the material to cooperate: a layer too thick and it will not dry; a brush stroke too hard and the smooth, silkly surface, the hallmark beauty of Urushi, is ruined.
Additionally between each new layer, the surface must be immaculately cleaned, buffed, and polished, and polished and polished, before the artist can apply the next layer of sap. A craft artist repeats this same process over and over and over - painting, buffing, polishing, layering, drying – 9, 15, even up to 100 times with this effort taking many days, and sometimes weeks, months and in some cases, even years for a craft artist to fully “grow” a finished object. The resulting warmth of the Urushi object only comes with expertise, experience, patience in other words great craftsmanship and of course, a lot of the right weather!
Modern processes and techniques have reduced this time while maintaining the exquisite quality, but most craft artists still practice some of the many traditional techniques. Colors for traditional Urushi objects (still today) are mostly red and black using pigments made from various minerals and compounds. A red pigment was typically of vermillion and red ocher (bengara). And black, iron, pine soot or lamp black to name a few.
Today, artists use a variety of natural and derived pigments to create a host of vibrant colors. And often, to add frosting to the cake, artists will sometimes add to a drying layer some sparkle and sprinkle of gold, silver and other shiny particles such as titanium. Gold and silver leaf, shells and other materials are also used to adorn the object.
Urushi's Personal Touch
The renowed Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), in his essay “In Praise of Shadows” waxed poetic on his own personal experience with Urushi lacquareware in the candlelight as expertly translated below:
But in the still dimmer light of the candlestand, as I gazed at the trays
and bowls standing in the shadows cast by that flickering point of flame,
I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like
that of a still, dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen...
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Featured Urushi Artists (in order of appearance)
1. Ross, S., Sake Cup (2021).
2. Sakamoto, R., Bangle, Bag, Brooches (2021).
3. Ikeda, T., Neoplasia 02 (2021).
4. Ishizuka, G., Surface Tactility #13
5. Takayama, N., Sake Cups and Containers
1. Getty Museum: Bone, Flesh, Skin: The Making of Japanese Lacquer (2012).
2. Hakodate City (2021). Jomon, Kakinoshima.
3. Matsuda, G. (2001). The Book of Urushi: Japanese Lacquerware from a Master. Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (JPIC).
4. Matsumoto, N. (2018). Japan: The Earliest Evidence of Complex technology for Dreating Durable Colored Goods. Open Archaeology 2018; 4: 206-216, DE GRUYTER.
5. Tanizaki, J. (1977). In Praise of Shadows. Translation by Thomas J Harper and Edward G Seidensticker. Leete’s Island Books Publishing. Sedgwick, Maine, USA.
6. Hokkaido Historical Site
(1) K. Wakayama, (2021): Thoughts on Urushi - Personal Essay