the oldest urushi object: left shoulder ornament
Fig. H1   The oldest urushi
object, ornament for the left
shoulder: The board of
education of Hakodate-city,
Hokkaido Japan
URUSHI IN JAPAN   Since the similarity of the two words 'Japanese lacquer-work' and 'japanning' may result in some misunderstanding, the words 'urushi-work' will be used for the Japanese lacquer-work and 'urushi' or the Japanese lacquer liquid. The term 'japanning' refers to the European lacquer-work.
the oldest urushi objects: whole ornaments
Fig. H2   the oldest urushi
object, whole ornaments: The
board of education of
Hakodate-city, Hokkaido

Several red urushi lacquered ornaments were excavated in Hokkaido in the summer of 2000. A complete set of relic ornaments is the world's oldest urushi object that has been found until today, from around 9,000 years ago. It is a set of special ornaments meant for use by the high position deceased. The colour of this object was still amazingly bright and the body texture, made from natural fibers, had stayed sound. From this object, one can tell the durability of urushi material. But unfortunately the ornaments had great damage done to them by a fire in December 2002. Despite this event, five percent of the whole collection was saved. 

In 2011 an important research result was presented on the origin of urushi in Japan. A small branch of an urushi tree was excavated in 1984 at Torihama, the archeological remains in Fukui prefecture, where an urushi comb as shown below in Fig. H3 was later excavated. Radiocarbon dating method was used on the approximately 20 cm branch to determine its genetic origin to be indigenous to Japan and its age to be ±12,600 years. It is said that the urushi trees were cultivated and planted around the prehistoric settlements. Thanks to these great discoveries the urushi history was renewed.

It is inferable that since early Jomon period (± 16,500 years ago), urushi was already used by ancient people in Japan.

red lacquered urushi comb
Fig. H3   red lacquered rushi
comb: Fukui Prefectural
Wakasa History Museum,
Fukui Japan
Fig. H3    A 6,000 years old red urushi comb which was excavated in 1975 from Torihama shell-mound, Fukui Japan and has beautiful form. Camellia japonica was used for the body of this comb and painted with coloured urushi with red-ocher, iron-oxide. Around this time people had acquired quite high ability to make complex objects with urushi work.

earthen ware carafe painted with urushi
Fig. H4   Earthenware carafe
coated with red urushi:
The board of education of
Hakodate-city, Hokkaido
Fig. H4 is a 3,200 years old earthenware carafe. Concluding from the red coloured urushi, this carafe might have been used as a ritual utensil. But urushi was also used to bond fragments of brittle, on low temperature baked earthenware since the Jomon-period, and also as a coating to prevent them from leaking.

Fig. H5  kintsugi-technique
  Fig. H5 and H6   Nowadays ceramic is still conserved with urushi using the kintsugi-technique.

Other examples of ancient urushi objects which were excavated are: a drain board, many ritual utensils, various urushiwares, coffins and old document papers that were used as lids on urushi jars.

According to a legend about urushi in the "Iroha-jiruisho" (compiled between AD 1177 and 1181), emperor YamatoTakeru no Mikoto, a fictional figure and at the same time a symbol of the god of war, one day touches the urushi liquid dripping from a tree. He finds the black blaze of it of such rare beauty, that he demands to have it painted on an object. He even appointed a ministry of urushi within his government. While this is just a legend, weapons and armours were indeed made by not only materials such as iron, stone or wood but also with urushi, and it was used as a rust preventing agent on weapons as well, this until the end of the Second World War.

The word 'urushi' has three possible etymological origins: the verb uruosu meaning to moisten as in slaking the thirst; the adjective uruwashii meaning graceful; and the noun nuru-shiru which refers to the 'liquid for paint'. What YamatoTakeru no Miko discovers is this very paint, richly glistening and full of grace.

Around AD 586 there already was an independent department for urushi works stated in the Ministry of Finance that was being organized efficiently for the production of urushiware.

Since the end of the 7th century the number of Buddhist sculptures grew immensely by the import of Buddhism from Korea, starting in China. Many of these images were made with the kanshitsu-technique which was adopted from the Chinese: constructing objects with only cloth, urushi and in some cases a wooden basic body. 

In 701 Taihourei was codified in which there were guidelines for the department of urushi works and promotion texts that encourage the planting of urushi trees with the production quantity as a measurement for tax.

In the Heian period (781-1185) more vivid descriptions about the daily use of urushi appeared. Like in the oldest Japanese written tale Taketori no Okina and The Tale of Genji one can read about the state of interior, furniture and utensils that were made with urushi around that time. The descriptions come across gorgeously as plenty of golden makie and raden were used. Like in the tales, members of the imperial family, court nobles and members of the national diet were the only people who were allowed to use urushiware. The common people used earthenware and plain wooden ware. Byodoin and Chusonji-konjikido are both famous temples that are decorated with urushi, golden makie and an enormous amount of mother-of-pearl, built in the Heian period.

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) urushiware was produced for not merely the noble people, but also started to be made by workers who belonged to the manors and monks belonging to the powerful temples, this for their own usage.

In the Muromachi period (1333-1568) Rokuonji, the so called 'golden temple' was build, of which the whole first and second floors were painted with urushi and guilt with gold leaves that are five times thicker than the average. Urushi liquid was produced on full capacity, urushiware became more popular to the common people and urushiware shops appeared in the big cities. Urushi artists paid tax with their skills and had special passports which gave them free way to anywhere in the country at a time when travelling was still very limited and restrained by the law.

In the Edo period (1603-1867) urushi tree was highly valued and was proclaimed as one of the shimoku (four essential trees), together along with the tea tree, the mulberry tree (for silk worms) and the kozo, paper mulberry which is the basic material for the high-grade Japanese paper. There was a so-called 'urushi-tax' and people had to pay a part of the tax with urushi-liquid and urushi-wax which was made from urushi seeds Fig. H7, was used for the production of candles. There was also an 'urushi magistrate' who collected the urushi-tax and took care of urushiware which belonged to temples and shrines. There were special urushi craftsmen who travelled around the whole country to repair and maintain urushiware regularly, thanks to these experts people always could use their urushiware in good condition.

After the Second World War the Japanese life style changed into the American style. Until 1959 the production of urushi-liquid was constantly at its height and urushiware was still used daily. Urushi-kaki, the urushi-liquid collectors, built up such a fortune with their work that they could afford to build a house in a single period of six months. From 1960 cheaper urushi was imported from China and the employment of the urushi-kaki decreased along with the urushiware.

Despite that the Japanese still use urushiware today especially for the festive meal for the New Year traditional food. In Japan, earthenware was first made 12,000 years ago and urushiware 10,000 years ago. The reason that metal tableware is not common in Japan is that these two elements of ceramic and urushi ware together form an all-round equipment.Metal was used more for the coins, building materials,fine tools, special knives, high quality saws or weapons as Japanese swords and harnesses.
Fig. H6 kintsugi-technique  

urushi seeds
Fig. H7   urushi seeds: Nihon
Urushikakigijutu Hozonkai,
Joboji, Iwate Japan
location of urushi liquid bidding in 1935
Fig. H8   Location of urushi
liquid bidding in 1935: Nihon
Urushikaki-gijutu Hozonkai,
Joboji, Iwate Japan

trading permission provided by Ieyasu Tokugawa
Fig. H9 trading permission
provided by Ieyasu
Tokugawa: National Archive,
The Hague,
The Netherlands
URUSHI IN EUROPE   In 1549 the Portuguese arrived to Kagoshima in Kyushu, an island in the southern part of Japan. Since then public trade was carried on although their actual purpose was the propagation of the Catholic religion. These missionaries set their eyes on the high quality refined urushiware and wished to have ritual utensils made with the same material. They ordered the utensils and that was the beginning of the official trade of urushiware.

In 1600 the Dutch trading ship Liefde ran ashore in Bungo (current Ooita) in Kyushu.
Fig.H9   In1609 Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu gave official permission to trade and the official trade between Japan in national isolation and the Netherlands - which had the exclusive rights - was a fact. It lasted until 1859 when Japan entered the international market.

cover of the diary of Dutch factory in Hirado
Fig. H10  the title page of the
diary of Dutch factory in
Hirado, Japan 1639: National
Archive, The Hague,
The Netherlands
Fig.H10   In 1607 was the first order of urushiware to Japan by the Dutch East India Company VOC, and in 1610 the first urushiware arrived to Amsterdam. The imported products were comptoirs, chests, boxes and tables. The Dutch were so fascinated by both the beauty and quality of the Japanese urushiware. As a matter of fact, urushi had been a paint of mystery until the disclosure in 1720 by an Italian priest, revealing in his book that it concerned a sort of oriental lacquer. In an effort to equal this mysterious paint in both material and technique, man put great passion in the study of it in Europe.

contents of diary of Dutch factory in Hirado
Fig. H11   contents of the
diary d.d. 21st August 1639
of the Dutch factory in
Hirado, Japan 1639: National
Archive, The Hague, The
Fig.H11   The VOC had traded not only Japanese urushi objects to Europe and other Asian countries, at the same time they also traded in raw urushi liquid, the so called Namrack, and decoration material as ray skin. This page from a log book d.d. 21 August 1639 registers the state of shipping of rayskin, raw urushi namrack.

Fig. H12   Cabinet, inlayed
with panels of Japanese
lacquer, early 17th century:
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam,
The Netherlands.
Restored by MarikoNishide
Details click
here1 here2.
According to an old document dated from 1610, there had been a Dutchman, Willem Kick who started a japanning atelier in Amsterdam the Netherlands. The simultaneous upcoming of the japanning ateliers in Europe and the first exported urushiware to Amsterdam shows the great popularity of this phenomenon, particularly among the Royal families and court nobles in Europe. They competed with one another in buying urushiware and urushi furniture as a symbol of status. Many urushi objects from this period are now exhibited in Royal palaces and museums throughout Europe.

Fig. H12   Japanese urushi objects were appreciated for its high quality but there were at the same time hard to afford. People in Europe started to invent a new way to produce unique furniture using pieces of original Japanese urushi and combining this with the japanning technique. The cabinet in the picture is the earliest example of such urushi-japanning combination technique.

This cabinet was restored by Mariko Nishide in 2008 at Rijksmuseum atelier gebouw.

book stand in makie
Fig. H13  book stand in
makie, early 18th century:
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam,
The Netherlands
Fig. H13   From the 18th century a policy of investment restrictions was set in and luxurious furniture gave way to ordinary utensils that were lacquered plain black. This style influenced the veneering of furniture and music instruments in the years after.
Finding genuine black which is similar to the urushi black had been one of the strongest desires and an important subject for Europeans since they came across urushi objects.

comb with mother-of-pearl and makie technique
Fig. H14   comb with mother-
of-pearl and makie technique,
Japan, 19th century: from
Exhibition ' The Origins Of L'
Aart Nouveau The Bing
Empire': Van Gogh Museum,
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
/ object: Victoria and Albert
Museum, London England

Fig. H15   inro-dansu,
storage cabinet for inro by
Zeshin Shibata, end of 19th
century: restored by
Mariko Nishide.
Details click
In 1867 the World Exposition was held in Paris. Japan participated for the first time to an international exhibition and urushi artworks were shown which were the public's favourite. Again in 1878 the international exhibition was held in Paris and Japonism came to life in Europe. Japonism influenced the art field in Europe and this stream lead to the next art movement, the art nouveau.

Fig. H14   In 1895 Samuel Bing, a German art dealer opened a fine arts shop called 'L' Art Nouveau Bing' in Paris where he sold Asian crafts and new style fine arts. The name of this shop was the origin of the art nouveau style in France and Great-Britain. In Belgium it was called the 'style moderne', 'Jugendstil' in Germany and 'Sezession' in Austria and it distinguished itself by a new two-dimensioned point of view in combination with an extraordinary decorative impression. Bing maintained a close respectful friendship with Zeshin Shibata Fig. H15, a great master in urushi and nihon-ga of that time, and therefore a great part of his art nouveau was remarkably influenced by not merely ukiyoe but also by the distinctive design of Japanese urushi works.

In 1898 Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese artisan, immigrated to Paris to help at the Japanese pavilion on the international exhibition of 1900 in Paris. In 1907 he met Eileen Gray, an Irish architect who started learning urushi after being influenced by him. Following her in 1912, the Swiss designer Jean Dunand too started learning urushi by Gray’s introduce to Sugawara. Thanks to the Vietnamese urushi, which was abundantly available since the colonization by France together with the traditional urushi technique these two European artists were able to produce numerous urushi arts ware. Sugawara did not return to Japan and died in 1940 in France. It can be said that Sugawara had an influence on the fundament for the European artists to create urushi work by means of the traditional technique, instead of japanning.