Japanese Lacquerware: A Collector’s Guide

Japanese lacquerware objects Seven pieces of Japanese lacquerware, 20th century. Sold for $1,875 via Garth's Auctioneers & Appraisers (April 2019).

Japanese lacquerware is a tradition that dates back to 5000 BC, during the Jomon period of Japanese prehistory. Made from the toxic sap of the Japanese lacquer tree (native to China and India), the specific lacquer can be found on pictures, decorative pieces like Buddha statues, bento boxes, ceramics, furniture, a variety of prints, and more. The varied and extensive Japanese lacquerware history can be evidenced by some of the earliest examples found at the Kakinoshima “B” Excavation Site in Hokkaido, northern Japan. Dating back about 7,000 years, these pieces of pottery and other objects were discovered in a pit grave. During this time, this lacquer was frequently used on ceramics and wooden ancient Japanese lacquerware items. In some cases, the deceased were even buried in lacquered clothing.

To better understand how Japanese lacquerware is made, why it’s collected today, and how to preserve its condition, let’s start with the basics.

What is Japanese Lacquerware?

The term lacquer refers to hard, often shiny finishes that are applied to a variety of materials, especially wood. Japanese lacquerware covers a wide range of fine and decorative arts made of wood, basketry, leather and more. Types of lacquerware include decorative pottery, dinnerware and tea sets, vases, and pieces of furniture.

Lacquerware is coated with a specific type of lacquer made from poison oak sap, or urushi, that originates from the Chinese or Japanese lacquer tree. The term urushi is also used to describe Japanese lacquerware itself. Growing up to around 65 feet tall, these trees are native to China and the Indian subcontinent. They are cultivated and tapped in China, Korea, and Japan. The sap is treated, dyed, and dried, then applied (typically in three coats) on objects to form a hard, smooth, waterproof surface layer.

Japanese lacquerware

Antique Japanese Red Lacquerware Large Box, late 19th century. Sold for $40 via Mebane Antique Auction (December 2019).

Technology to make lacquerware is believed to have been by the Jōmon, as Japanese lacquerware was very much part of their culture. The process to make the lacquer was time-consuming, taking several months. Traditionally, the Japanese lacquerware craft has been practiced by extremely skilled artisans.

Experts are torn as to whether the lacquer of the Jōmon people was influenced by Chinese techniques. However, many traditional Japanese traditions over history have been influenced by China. Thus, the Japanese Edo period (1603-1868) saw an increase in cultivation of lacquer trees and sparked new techniques to create Japanese lacquerware. During this time, Japanese painter and lacquerer Ogata Kōrin became known as a lacquerware master, painting exquisite pictures on wooden boxes and other objects.

Types of Japanese Lacquerware

Today, Japanese lacquerware can be found in various shapes, colors, and sizes. In the early days, however, the types of objects that could be made with lacquer were limited. Various boxes of all shapes and sizes were created during the Edo period. Some of these boxes stored poems, other papers, cosmetics, and more. Boxes called suziribako, were used specifically for writing tools: ink slate, water droppers, and brushes.

Lacquer three-case inro, Japan, 19th century

A lacquer three-case inro, signed ‘Hiroya’. 19th century, Japan. Sold for €190 via Tajan (February 2020).

During the Edo period, inro became widely produced with lacquer. These were traditional Japanese tiny containers with multiple compartments, which hung from obi ties around the waist. Obi held medicine and other small items, and were covered with lacquer and intricate designs which made for impressive fashion accessories.

Other commonly seen and collected objects include Japanese lacquerware boxes, pitchers, tea sets, and furniture including ornately decorated chests and cabinets.

Techniques in Japanese Lacquerware

In Japanese lacquerware history, one of the most exquisite objects known today is the Tamamushi Shrine dating back to the mid-7th century. Materials that make up this shrine include lacquered hinokii, or Japanese cyprus, and camphor wood. Scholars suggest that paintings were made with the technique known as mitsuda-e, which is an ancient type of oil painting that involves the use of perilla oil with litharge, or the mineral form of lead oxide.

Another common technique for making Japanese lacquerware is the method of sprinkling decorative gold or silver powder onto lacquer, which is called maki-e.

Japanese lacquer trays decorated in maki-e

Two lacquer trays for kimono, decorated with a swarm of butterflies in maki-e. Late 19th century. €600 – €800 via Lempertz (December 2019).

Other examples of Japanese lacquerware techniques include: 

  • Ikkanbari: A 17th-century technique to make tea wares, involving the application of layers of lacquer to molded paper.
  • Iro-urushi: The technique of adding pigments to clear lacquer. Natural pigments were limited to red, yellow, green, brown, and black until 19th-century Western innovations led to the introduction of artificial colors.
  • Raden: Lacquerware technique that involves the use of seashell inlays and ivory as adornments to wood-based pieces.
  • Shunkei-nuri: A process that became popular in the 17th century to create Shunkei lacquerware. It involves using transparent lacquer on wood stained in yellow or red. Tea wares were commonly produced this way.
  • Urushi-hanga: A technique that involves making a printing plate from dry lacquer, which was carved and used as a block print with pigmented (non-natural) colors.

Collecting, Storing, and Cleaning

When collecting Japanese lacquerware, find pieces that appeal to you. According to Christie’s, you should start by seeing as many pieces as possible. Feeling the actual items in your hands helps you understand and choose objects perfect for you. You can also get a better sense of how much work went into decorating, for example, intricate miniature lacquered boxes with such delicacy and craft.

In terms of condition, Japanese lacquerware can be restored, but it is difficult to determine an acceptable level of restoration. Also, excess restoration processes like fills or overpainting can damage original surfaces. Lacquer is not a material that survives well in dry weather, while it can on some levels resist water and heat. 

Beware that deterioration of lacquerware pieces can also occur due to: 

  • Age: Lacquer breaks down and deteriorates over time.
  • Light: Photodegradation in light is a risk, causing fading and discoloration.
  • Water: If lacquer has been photodegraded, it becomes extremely sensitive to humidity and water. Contact with water can cause whitening of surfaces.
  • Temperature: Colors of lacquered items can change if exposed to high temperatures along with moisture.

To help preserve condition, these steps recommended by Home Steady detail how to clean Japanese lacquerware with water and a cloth:

  • Wet a lint-free cloth with water and wring it out.
  • Wipe your lacquerware to remove dirt, dust, and fingerprints.
  • Dry lacquerware with a soft, lint-free cloth.

If items are damaged, you can help restore them by using carnauba wax (but do this only if pieces are damaged and not if they are in good condition): 

  • Using carnauba-based wax, take a soft cloth and wipe down the item to apply a light layer of wax to the surface.
  • Take a clean part of the cloth or lambswool buffer, and buff the lacquerware to remove excess wax and restore shine.

Be sure to dust lacquerware weekly with a feather duster (certain cloths, if not intended for cleaning, can be too abrasive). Keep pieces out of direct light, keep humidity in the room regulated, and check pieces routinely for insect infestation, evidenced by pinholes and a sand-like material called frass.

Japanese lacquered shodana

Japanese lacquered shodana, signed Shohosai Kozan and Miura Kenya I. Sold for $5,000 (Charlton Hall, April 2020).

Japanese Lacquerware Today

During the Yamato Dynasty, the mountains of Kawada, Japan were abundant in naturally growing lacquer trees. Thus, the region became known for its lacquerware artisans; today, Kawada still has hundreds of craftsmen living and working in the area. It is known as the home of Japanese lacquerware, though the craft is still practiced across all of Japan.

Auction houses around the world offer Japanese lacquerware in auctions, featuring objects of great condition and provenance, as works remain in high demand among collectors. In 2010, Bonham’s set auction records with the sale of its Edward Wrangham collection, during which several Japanese lacquerware pieces sold for six-figure prices.

As for the admirers of the art, exceptional collections can be seen in art museums like the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto, the Met in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Marie Antoinette’s collection of Japanese lacquerware is also certainly worth a trip to France; pieces of hers can be found at the Louvre and in the Musée Guimet in Paris, as well as in the palace of Versailles.

Thankfully (and understandably), it’s become clear that this historic craft isn’t falling out of favor any time soon. The Japanese government has put in place several efforts to preserve the art of Japanese lacquerware in the last few decades. Notable craftsmen’s works have been dubbed national treasures, and officials have started offering Urushi workshops to encourage the spread and admiration of the long-standing tradition.

Looking for more? Explore Japanese art available now on Invaluable.