During the 16th-century age of exploration, Portuguese traders landed in Japan looking for exotic goods to sell in markets back in Europe and their newly founded colonies. Lacquerware was high on their list, not only for its decorative beauty but also for its more prosaic quality of being the only waterproof agent known at the time that could be applied by brush in a liquid state.
Just as "China" became the common-use word for both porcelain and the country that produced it, so "Japan" entered the English language not only as the name of the country. Originally the word also referred to the lacquerware with which the country was associated, and the verb "japanning" meant "to varnish."
The most prized style of lacquer was maki-e ("sprinkled pictures"), the application of gold dust or flakes to make decorative designs, a skill in which Japanese craftsmen especially excelled. The fascinating history of maki-e in trade between Japan and Europe from this time until the modern period is the subject of "Export Lacquer: Reflections of the West in Black and Gold," a comprehensive exhibition being shown at the Kyoto National Museum till Dec. 7 before traveling to the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo Dec. 23-Jan. 26. At the exhibition, examples assembled from both domestic and foreign collections can be seen together for the first time.