Lacquerware Image
Lacquerware – Makie (sprinkled pictures) and Raden (mother-of-peal inlays)

Discovery of the sap of the Japanese sumac, or lacquer tree, and its application to daily ware spurred a craft unique to the East. Lacquerware production began in earnest in China during the Period of Warring States (third and fourth centuries B.C.), but it was under the Sui and Tang dynasties that lacquerware production blossomed. Around this time, a government mission to the Tang Court (eighth century) brought back lacquerware to Japan. Some of these early introductions are still preserved at the Shoso-In Treasure House (of Todaiji Temple in Nara). Originally used by the Tang Court, early examples of lacquerware show the high level of artistry attained in China.

During the Heian Period (ninth to 12th centuries), a craft studio was established in the imperial court, which encouraged the rapid development of lacquerware. Gradually, artistic themes and designs began to take a local flavor, leading to the development of lacquerware arts and crafts unique to Japan and ultimately to their wide acceptance in Pure Land Sect Buddhism (Jodo Kyo). Traditional techniques such as raden (mother-of-pearl inlays used for lacquerware) and makie (lit. “sprinkled pictures,” adhesive metal or colored powder scattered in soft lacquer) were adopted in lacquerware production. Unique devices inside temple compounds lavishly used lacquerware to create a night light, by reflecting the glow from lamps.

The resultant luster and simmer of light reflected on the lacquered surface were used most effectively to represent the heavenly Pure Land of Jodo. At the same time, this exquisite rendition, as well as the other techniques, was the realization of the Buddhist tenet to “do one’s best to create great beauty.”

Needless to say, lacquer added flourish to the various articles used by court nobles. Some of the best preserved lacquerware from dynastic eras include vanity chests, stationery boxes, lamps and others. Throughout the different historical periods of Japan -- the Kamakura, Muromachi, Momoyama and Edo, spanning 600 years between the 13th and 19th centuries -- lacquerware arts and crafts catered to people of all walks, including members of the imperial family, aristocracy, military lords and samurai, Buddhist priests, wealthy townspeople and others, developing into an art form with widely varied applications and representations of beauty.

Lacquerware developed in Japan was widely accepted abroad, as exemplified by the terms “japan” or “japanware” that were applied to pieces from the country. Among the Century Cultural Foundation collection, lacquerware has been preserved in the likes of mirror cases and writing tools, such as stationery boxes (containing Indian-ink, inkstones) and writing desks.