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Thickly lacquered with tradition

Fine 'Japanning' in Murakami

by Yuko Naito

As foreign merchants once linked products and countries (china from China, for example), the term “japanning” first appeared in a 1688 text by John Stalker and George Parker that described the superiority of Japanese lacquerware. However, the technique of applying lacquer on various objects as a protective and decorative varnish is not unique to Japan. Lacquerware has long been manufactured in many regions of East and Southeast Asia. Even so, lacquerware is considered Japan’s representative art craft, due to the high artistic standards and great variety of shapes and techniques.

About 600 years ago, a Kyoto temple priest introduced the lacquering technique to Murakami City in Niigata Prefecture. Today the small castle town is famous for a lacquerware peculiar to the region, known as Murakami kibori-tsuishu, or Murakami tsuishu for short.

Tsuishu usually means the technique of engraving designs into the layers of red lacquer, which have been applied one on top of another nearly 100 times until the lacquer becomes nearly 1 cm thick. Invented in China during the Song Dynasty, the technique was introduced to Japan during the Muromachi Period.

Since this technique is time-consuming, Murakami artisans developed a method that creates finished products resembling tsuishu works — engraving the surface of wooden substrates first and then applying lacquer. The method was perfected 270 years ago, and was named kibori-tsuishu (kibori means wood carvings).

Murakami tsuishu artisans usually use trees with relatively soft grains, such as ho, tochi and katsura, so that they can carve complicated patterns.

The most commonly seen motifs in Murakami tsuishu are peony flowers, peacocks and landscapes, showing a strong influence from Chinese lacquerware. In landscapes, spaces such as sky and sea are often filled with tiny patterns called jimoyo. There are more than 20 kinds of jimoyo, and it requires great skill to carve those patterns.

“The designs may all look alike, but even if we create the same designs, the finished products somehow look different depending on the artisan. There are about 30 tsuishu carvers in Murakami City, and I can tell who made which,” says Hatsuo Kawamura, a carver with a 30-year career.

Murakami tsuishu are undoubtedly expensive crafts. Some of the elaborately engraved works can cost nearly 1 million yen. Tsuishu artisans, however, can hardly make a living from carving alone, Kawamura says, because there are at least three specialists — a woodworker, a carver and a lacquerer — involved in tsuishu-making, and each of them takes only one third of the market price.

Moreover, it takes time to complete tsuishu works. Even for Kawamura, who works more than 10 hours a day, it takes 20-30 days to complete the elaborate patterns on the surface of a chabitsu (a tea set container, about 50-60 cm in diameter).

“The finer patterns and designs become, the longer it takes us to complete one work. Money is paid for the sweat from our brows,” Kawamura says. “Schoolchildren sometimes come to see my work as a part of school program. When they learn the price, they often ask, ‘Are you rich?’ Unfortunately, I’m far from rich.”

Kawamura became an apprentice to a tsuishu carver around the age of 17. Two years later, however, his master went bankrupt because of the failure of the tsuishu exporting business and he had to discontinue the apprenticeship. The master apologized to him for taking Kawamura only halfway.

After that, Kawamura did construction work at various sites for years until he and his wife had a child and returned to Murakami City. Back in his hometown he became a taxi driver, and started carving again in his free time. Despite his long absence from the workshop, he had few problems returning to the craft. He didn’t, however, quit the cab-driving business. “I didn’t think I could support my family only by carving,” he says.

Nine years ago Kawamura turned 60. Because he’s receiving a monthly pension, he finally decided to devote his days to carving. Even though he is a highly skilled craftsman whose chabitsu can go for 500 yen,000-600,000 yen, carving seems to be more of a hobby than work. He even gives away his work to his friends sometimes.

“They’re too expensive to sell,” he says.