Traditional Culture of Japan - Portal site of traditional crafts and culture

Establishment of decorations with makie and raden techniques in the Middle Ages


In the same way that taxes were paid with rice in the past, lacquer used to be one of the items paid as tax. Lacquer was a precious item for the people of early times.


In the Middle Ages, techniques using lacquer started to be developed. In addition to simply coating an object with black or vermillion lacquer, decorations were added. Some of these lacquerware still remain today.


Lacquerware of the Heian Period
During the Middle Ages within the Heian Period (From 794 to 1185), “makie”, which draws a picture on lacquerware with powdered gold, and “raden”, which adheres shiny shells to lacquerware, became popular among the people of rank. Other than makie and raden, there are also other kinds of lacquerware such as “chinkin”, which engraves a design on lacquerware and then buries gold in the grooves, and “urushie”, which draws a picture with colored lacquer.


Instead of using a single technique, a few different decorative techniques were combined in order to create luxurious lacquerware.



Konjiki-dō (Golden Hall) within Chūsonji Temple, which has been designated as a World Heritage Site, is well known as a building of this period. Konjiki-dō is a luxurious building that used gold, which was built in the first half of the 12th century. Lacquer is heavily used for its interior. There are many items of lacquer art with a variety of decorations such as makie and raden in Konjiki-dō.


The turban shell is famous as a shell used for raden. But, the turban shell’s unit cost is expensive. Even so, it is said that Konjiki-dō was built with more than 20,000 expensive turban shells.


Considering the fact that a large amount of lacquer and gold was used in addition to raden decoration, we can see that the person who built this had a substantial amount of financial power during that time.


Lacquerware of the Kamakura Period
Carrying on the flow of the Heian Period, lacquerware also evolved during the Kamakura Period (From 1185 to 1333). In particular, it is said that the makie and the raden techniques were established during this period.


Makie uses powdered gold or silver, thus the technique to grind the gold into a powder is important. It is said that the development of powdered gold and silver was progressed during this period, which enabled manufacturing of fine powdered gold and silver. With the development of these powders, makie was also developed.


The “negoro-nuri” style is a famous lacquerware created during this period. The monks of Negoro Temple applied lacquer to their everyday items, which was the beginning of the negoro-nuri style.


With the negoro-nuri style, vermillion lacquer is coated after applying black lacquer several times. When this lacquerware is used, the vermillion lacquer will become worn. Then, the black lacquer underneath will start to appear. This kind of look was considered to have its own beauty thus had a higher value.


Lacquering continually evolved even after this period. For instance, “Made-in-Japan lacquerware with makie decorations” was exported overseas during the Muromachi Period (From 1336 to 1573).


The word “japan” has the alternative meaning of lacquer in English. According to these facts, we can imagine that lacquer used to be synonymous with Japan in Europe during that time.


As evidenced from the fact that Marie Antoinette of France used to collect lacquerware, the artistry of lacquerware was already valued in European countries.

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