Custodians of the Craft: The Art of Japanese Wajima Lacquerware
Wajima-nuri lacquerware's durability, elegance, and beauty are well-known and widely appreciated internationally and throughout Japan
Japanese crafts tend to inspire a certain air of reverence in the viewer. These beautifully designed pieces seem to belong in a rarefied space where precision is just as crucial as artistry, where ingenuity and immense patience are prerequisites.
Indeed, when we stop to appreciate a finely made Japanese piece of art, we’re able to contemplate the result of hundreds of hours of manual work, decades of experience and mastery, and centuries of techniques carefully honed and passed on.
This is especially true when it comes to Japanese lacquerware, notably the lacquerware crafted in Wajima, a city that sits on the northern tip of the Noto Peninsula—lacquerware that’s esteemed not only in Japan but also throughout the world.
Today, only a handful of workshops produce the Wajima lacquerware, or Wajima-nuri as it’s known in Japanese. Among these is the House of Shioyasu, a family-run business established in 1858. While in the beginning it specialized in a single aspect of lacquerware creation, in 1904, Masanojo Shioyasu, the third-generation owner, expanded the firm, involving it in all stages of production.
Shinichi Shioyasu now runs the Shioyasu Urushi Ware Company as the fourth-generation owner. “This approach of my grandfather, Masanojo, went well and led to his gaining independence as a Nushiya,” Shioyasu says. “About 60 years ago, after World War II, my father, Seiji Shioyasu, built the present-day shop and workshop. While the company has moved twice, it has stayed within the city of Wajima.”
Theories abound as to the origins of Wajima-nuri. One is that it was taught by a Buddhist priest from Negoroji Temple in Iwade, Wakayama prefecture. However, precisely how, where, and when the craft began remains largely unknown.
Another important place in the history of the craft is Sojiji Temple, located close to Wajima, where disciples from across the country gathered to study Zen Buddhism. “I believe that after their apprenticeship the monks took Wajima-nuri trays and bowls to their home temples throughout Japan, which brought awareness of this lacquerware,” Shioyasu says.
The common thread among these theories—some folklore and others more scholarly—is that Wajima lacquerware is derived from Nego lacquerware, which for centuries was used for daily household tasks due to its durability.
Evolved over time, Wajima-nuri was officially registered as a “traditional craft” in 1975. It was eventually designated as an “Important Intangible Cultural Property” by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, earning more artistic and decorative associations.
Patient process and unique ingredients
While the enigma surrounding the origins of Wajima-nuri adds a layer of fascination to the art, its distinctiveness is grounded mainly on two aspects: the unique material and its remarkable durability.