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Types of decoration in lacquer art: “Kashoku” (adding decorations)


Speaking of lacquerware, many people think of the pieces that have unified colors of black or vermilion with the use of lacquer.


In fact, the majority of lacquerware uses a single color and has a shiny, beautiful finish. This type of lacquerware can maximize the beauty of its shape rather than detracting from it by poorly adding decorations to the piece.


The same thing goes with ceramics. For instance, in the case of a famous traditional craft of Japan called “Bizen ware”, the clay is shaped into a desired form and then fired just the way it is.


Glaze (“Yūyaku”: glassy layer that covers the surface of ceramics) is not used for Bizen ware. This way, it creates the natural color of the material itself.


However, in addition to creating the sheen and hardening the coated object, lacquer also has the adhesive ability of bonding one material with the other. Making lacquerware more gorgeous by adhering powdered gold or imbedding sea shells with this special property of lacquer seems to be a matter of course for lacquerware that is made by humans.


In this manner, a variety of decorations have started being added in lacquering. Decorating lacquerware is called “kashoku” (adding decorations). Here, we will briefly touch on the types of kashoku.


The most famous decorating method in lacquer art is “makie”. Makie is the technique to first draw pictures with lacquer and then highlight the pictures by scattering powdered gold or silver over them before the lacquer dries. The powdered gold or silver will only attach to the areas that have been coated with lacquer.


After lacquer dries, it will never liquefy again. Thus, once the powdered gold or silver adheres, the highlighted pictures will never vanish unless scraped by friction.


Some shellfish emit beautiful rays such as the turban shell. “Raden” is the technique to adhere tiny broken pieces of such shells onto the surface of lacquer work before the lacquer dries.


Simply put, on the patterns drawn by lacquer, if powdered gold or silver is adhered, it is called makie, and if shells are used, it is raden.


When adhering shells to lacquer in practice, the shells are first processed into a flat sheet. Then, after adhering the shells to the lacquerware, layers of lacquer are applied and polished in order to smooth out the roughness.


First, the surface of the lacquerware is engraved with carving knives. Then lacquer is rubbed into the grooves. After wiping off the excess lacquer with paper, gold or silver leaf is adhered to the engraved pattern.


After drying, only the gold leaf in the engraved part (the area where lacquer was rubbed) should be firmly adhered to the lacquer. When the excess leaf is wiped off, a beautiful pattern should appear. This technique is called “chinkin”.


Hyomon/ Heidatsu
The decorating technique where a thin metal plate is first cut into a desired pattern then adhered to the lacquerware is called “hyōmon” or “heidatsu”.


With the hyōmon technique, a patterned plate is created by cutting a thin plate of gold or silver. Then, this plate is adhered to the surface of the lacquerware. After adhering, lacquer is applied over the plate and polished until smooth. When the polishing is finished, a shiny pattern will appear.


The technique where a picture is created with colored lacquer is called “urushie”. There are a number of lacquerware works that use red, yellow, and green lacquer preserved in China as well.


Compared to makie, which uses gold and silver, urushie can be plain, so it is said that the ancestors of the upper social classes preferred makie over urushie.


Lacquer is supposed to be coated over and over again, but each layer of lacquer is very thin. However, repeating this hundreds of times can build up a few millimeters. Creating a pattern by carving these layers of lacquer is called “chōshitsu”.


Of course, the process to coat lacquer hundreds of times is quite exhausting. Today, machines can do this layering work, but long ago people used to do this by hand.


As described above, there are many decorating techniques in lacquerware. The single colored lacquerware such as black or vermillion is beautiful, but the lacquerware with distinctive personality added by using these decorating techniques has a unique style as well. There are other kinds of decorating techniques, but you should be fine as long as you understand the basic techniques described here.

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