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

Over 10,000 years of history in lacquer


Traditional crafts with a history of 500 years fall under the category of “old”. But, in the case of lacquer, instead of hundreds of years, we are talking about a history of more than 10,000 years.


Lacquer has been in use for such a long time. Japanese ancestors created tools by using lacquer and adopted them to use in their lives.


Reinforcing tools with lacquer

Lacquer is obtained by cutting the lacquer tree to bleed and collecting the sap. In Japan, a lacquer tree with an age of approximately 12,000 years was excavated.


Also, a lacquer product of about 9,000 years ago has been confirmed.


Back in those days, people used to live by hunting or gathering fruit from the woods, instead of a settled, farming way of life cultivating rice, etc. In their lifestyle, they needed to make tools that be used to spear animals by scraping rocks or splitting off bamboos. They reinforced their tools by absorbing lacquer onto the tools.


In addition to emitting luster, lacquer is also known in nature as a substance with a very strong adhesive ability. A section that is coated with lacquer will be stronger, so lacquer can make the coated area indestructible.


It is considered that people focused on this characteristic of lacquer and then started using lacquer for tool making in Japan. People started using lacquer at least before the early stage of the Jōmon Period (Approximately from BC 14,000 to BC 300).


Lacquer maintains its luster for thousands of years
One of the features of lacquer is that it does not deteriorate easily. In fact, when an analysis was conducted on the lacquer that was used thousands of years ago, the result turned out to be almost identical to the result of an analysis conducted on new lacquer. This ancient lacquer is still shiny. Lacquer’s ingredients do not go through much alterations, and this is why lacquer can continue to keep its original condition even if it is buried under ground.


The lacquer collected in Japan includes an ingredient called urushiol. This key ingredient is the reason for the unique characteristics of lacquer.


During the Jōmon Period, people were already using red and vermillion lacquer. Lacquer turns to a semi-translucent brownish color when refined, and pigments are added to provide color to lacquer. The red pigment used during the Jōmon Period was mainly ferric oxide (Fe2O3). For vermillion lacquer, mercuric sulfide (HgS) was used.


However, if pigments are added to the sap that has been collected from the lacquer tree and then strained to remove impurities, it will not turn to a red color. However you try to change this will only darken the lacquer.


In order to produce a vivid red or vermillion color, the lacquer needs to be further refined. The moisture content of lacquer is removed and it is slowly stirred so that the luster is brought out. Through these processes, the lacquer will eventually shine and become a beautiful red or vermillion color.


A very colorful lacquerware, which was made during the Jōmon Period, has also been confirmed. In other words, from such an ancient time, a refining technique of lacquer similar to today’s technique had been established and used to enhance the artistry of lacquerware by adding color.


One of the reasons why this colored lacquer remained until today is that it was not exposed to ultraviolet light. Lacquer is a strong component but vulnerable to ultraviolet light. Because they were buried under ground and escaped the effects of ultraviolet light, the red color that was created thousands of years ago still remains today.

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