Lacquer (Japanese, Urushi) is the vehicle most exclusively identified with Japanese art and art industries. The Chinese have attempted its use, and in Europe connoisseurs are familiar with the vernis of the Martins, who worked in Paris in the last century. But lacquer in all its beautiful uses and decorations is a truly Japanese belonging. The date of its first application is lost in the mistiness of tradition. Like the potter’s art, the industry of the lacquer workers passed from crude beginnings of forty centuries ago to the marvels of artistic workmanship produced in the seventeenth century.
An important historical work, published in japan one hundred and eighty years before our Christian era, speaks of lacquer objects of furniture employed at the Court. In the Temple of Todayeji, at Nara, in the province of Yamato, the priests preserve with greatest care lacquer boxes made in our third century and used to hold their books of prayer. In A. D. 38o the Sadaijin Shibei published a book called Engishiki, in which he mentions both red and gold lacquer. Eighty years later, Minamoto no Juin speaks also of lacquers, known as Nashiji, or gold sprinkled lacquer.
In 48o a woman of great literary attainments mentions in one of her works, lacquer incrusted with mother of pearl. From this year to 664 many allusions to this industry are found in Japanese writings, but from 664 to 910 Japan was the prey of continual wars and political intrigues, so that art found no resting-place for progress, and many of the fine objects existing were destroyed by fire or pillage. From 910 to 1650 peace held sway, the industries were revived, families became rich, luxury invaded every household, and the lacquer workers became renowned and their artistic works greatly prized. The magnificent objects produced at this period are eagerly sought after by native amateurs and prized under the name of ” Jidai Mono.”
About this time Nagasaki was opened to the Hollanders, who created a demand which produced an unfortunate result. Quantity rather than quality was called for, and the result was disastrous. From 1700 the art work in lacquer declined, and in 1859, when Yokohama was opened to foreigners, it created a further demand for the production of objects pleasing to the eye but inferior and defective in workmanship. Time became measured by money, and the price of objects made as of old became too great.
The objects exposed at the Paris Exposition of 1867 were of the finest period and were a revelation to Europe, as they showed by contrast how the industry had fallen. Fortunately the Home Government saw this also and exerted every effort to revive this dying art. These efforts have been rewarded by great progress, and to-day works of great merit are produced. The most beautiful objects are now made in the three cities of Tokio, Kiyoto and Osaka. In the provinces of Suruga, Nakasa, 0 Kii and Iwashiro inferior objects are produced.
Lacquer is the sap of the Rhus vernicifera, the cultivation of which in Japan is a most important branch of agriculture. Wax is made from the fruit of the lacquer tree; this fruit is round and contains a very hard stone. The tree when five years old is regularly tapped from May until the first of November by incisions through the bark into the wood, each extending around one-fourth of the circumference of the tree. The first incisions are made about a half a yard apart on opposite sides of the tree, and every three or four days fresh incisions are made. This is repeated until the tree is destroyed and has to be cut down. Its branches are also tapped in a spiral line.