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Japanese Lacquerware - Urushi History

Friday, April 9, 2010 By InfoGatherer

Japanese Lacquerware, also known as urushi, is a treasured art form in the East and West. It likely began use as a protective and decorative coating six thousand years ago.

Lacquer is derived from the aged sap of the lacquer or urushi tree, and has been called one of the first paints and glues. When applied in thin coatings, it hardens and is able to repel water and resist other abrasives. Lacquer contains urushiol, the irritant in poison ivy, which is also responsible for lacquer’s material properties.

Lacquer appeared in a variety settings such as the decoration inside of shrines, furniture, chests, doors, eating vessels, utensils, and lamps. Different regions of Japan each have their own distinctive lacquerware. Common motifs include cherry blossoms, which symbolize beauty and the transient nature of life, and bamboo, which represents strength of character.

Europeans admired and coveted Oriental lacquerware. Like fine porcelain, they tried imitate it, but were initially unsuccessful. As a result, tremendous advances were eventually made in Europe in the development in glossy varnishes.

Adapted from the Japan Traditional Craft Center and from the St. Olaf College Yoshida and Friends Exhibition