Japanese Crafts: A Guide to Kanazawa Lacquerware

Kanazawa lacquerware is a designated traditional Japanese craft known for its fine, delicate work and luxurious beauty. It originated around the city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa, a prefecture in the north of central Honshu (mainland Japan) that faces the Sea of Japan. Boasting a history of over 400 years, the Japanese craft involves painting patterns on wares with lacquer and then sprinkling them with gold or silver dust before the lacquer dries up, in a process known as "Kaga makie." The result is a beautiful mixture of either black or crimson and gold. Read on to learn more about this gorgeous traditional Japanese craft.

The History of Kanazawa Lacquerware

Kanazawa lacquerware is the Japanese craft of applying lacquer to wood or paper that originated around what is today the city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture. The craft is famous for its use of a decorative technique known as "Kaga makie," which requires a great deal of artistic skill and involves painting patterns on wares with lacquer and then sprinkling them with gold or silver dust before the lacquer dries. Kanazawa lacquerware decorations also include polished gold or silver metal inlays known as "hyomon," seashell inlays known as "raden," or beautifully white eggshell inlays known as "rankaku," all of which require a lot of skill. The results are delicate, elegant patterns on black and gold that become the very essence of luxury.

The history of Kanazawa lacquerware goes back more than 400 years. During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), the lands controlled by the Kaga Domain included Kaga (modern-day southern Ishikawa Prefecture), Noto (modern-day northern Ishikawa Prefecture), and Etchu (modern-day Toyama Prefecture). The domain was so powerful that it was called “the fief of 1 million koku of rice,” with koku being a unit of measurement that essentially described a domain’s income. As such, their power attracted the attention of the Edo shogunate which ruled over Japan at the time, so the third Kaga head, Maeda Toshitsune (1594 – 1658), decided to put all of their money into developing the arts instead of a military force so as to not appear as a threat.

In order to help guide his domain’s cultural development, Maeda invited highly-skilled craftspeople from Edo (old name for Tokyo) and Kyoto to Kaga. It’s believed that two of them created the basis for what we now know as Kanazawa lacquerware: Igarashi Doho, a "makie" master from Kyoto, and Shimizu Kuhei, an Edo artisan of much renown. As they developed new craftwork techniques and passed them down to their apprentices, the art of Kanazawa lacquerware slowly came into existence.

Maeda Toshitsune was also a fan of traditional Noh theater and the "sado" tea ceremony, and by the time of the fifth Kaga head, Maeda Tsunanori, sado etiquette as well as other aspects of this traditional Japanese activity had become known by all the people of Kaga, samurai and townsfolk alike. Thanks to making culture and art easily available to commoners, Kaga soon developed a unique artistic sense that could be seen in everything from its townscapes to their way of life.

It has been theorized that the development of "makie" in Kanazawa is connected to the area being a leading center of gold leaf production. Gold leaf is gold mixed with trace amounts of silver or copper that’s then hammered incredibly thin. For over 400 years now, Kanazawa has been known as a producer of gold leaf, and today their products make up 98% of Japan’s domestic gold leaf market. The reason why gold leaf production developed in Kanazawa is most likely thanks to their patient artisans and a climate that’s perfect for the production of such a delicate craft. Over time, gold leaf started to be used not just in lacquerware but also as decoration in Buddhist altars, pottery, and other Japanese crafts.

Kanazawa lacquerware is not produced on a mass scale. Most of it is made one item at a time by hand by experienced craftspeople. These beautiful and durable wares come in all shapes and sizes, from katana sheaths and other battle gear to interior decorations or tea ceremony utensils.

The Characteristics of Kanazawa Lacquerware

Kanazawa lacquerware is known for its delicate and luxuriously beautiful Kaga makie design patterns, making it elegant enough for aristocrats and strong enough for samurai warriors. The process of making Kanazawa lacquerware is complex and involves numerous steps, from kijikako (wood processing) to nunokise (lining), nuri and togi (painting and polishing), and soshoku (decorating). "Kijikako" involves shaping the unlacquered wood into a desired shape, and it’s performed by a specialized "kijishi" woodturner who uses a spinning lathe to create bowls, trays, and other wares. "Nunokise" involves attaching cloth or Japanese paper to the joints and other delicate areas of the unlacquered item to strengthen it. "Nuri" and "togi" involve painting the wooden product with lacquer and polishing it. "Soshoku" involves the use of makie to decorate and finish the product.

Kanazawa is also home to Wajima and Yamanaka lacquerware. Wajima lacquerware originated in the city of Wajima on the Noto Peninsula, and involves painting various wares with lacquer mixed with local high-quality zinoko (diatomite powder). Yamanaka lacquerware, on the other hand, developed around the upstream area of the Yamanaka Onsen hot spring area (modern-day Kaga in Ishikawa Prefecture). The Yamanaka style is very simple, bringing out the natural patterns of specially-selected pieces of wood through the use of thin layers of lacquer.

Kanazawa Lacquerware Today

The demand for Kanazawa lacquerware and other traditional crafts has sadly been declining due to changes in lifestyle and a labor shortage brought on by the country’s falling birthrate. However, the city of Kanazawa has been actively pursuing a revival of its cultural assets developed over centuries of continuous work. Part of it was successfully getting Kanazawa lacquerware designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in 1980.

Kanazawa lacquerware is still produced using traditional methods, meaning one item at a time and by hand. But the Japanese craft has also changed with the times, being used to produce more modern items like business card cases and fountain pens. Thanks to this, it’s managed to survive and become one of the most famous examples of a traditional Japanese craft all over the world.

Related articles:

▶ Traditional Japanese Crafts: The Complete Guide to Japanese Lacquerware

▶ The Complete Guide to Traditional Japanese Crafts

▶ Traditional Japanese Crafts by Industry: Textiles, Ceramics, Dolls, Kokeshi, and More!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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