Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts Photo provided by Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts Kizan []

Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts Nagasaki bekkou

Originally lower-class samurai's side job
Traditional craft sold around Japan


What is Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts ?

Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts are mostly produced in the city of Nagasaki or Isahaya in the Nagasaki prefecture.
The shells used come from a type of sea turtle living around the Equator called Hawksbill turtle.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan knew two centuries of national isolation called sakoku and foreign trade was only partially allowed in Nagasaki. This craft naturally developed in Nagasaki, as it was easier to import tortoise shells there.
High-skilled artisans adjust the colors and thickness of the shells using elaborate and delicate techniques proper to Nagasaki.
Many accessories and small crafts are made with tortoise shell but bigger and more impressive works such as treasure ships are also produced.
The CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) of 1973 forbids international transactions of Hawksbill turtle.
As tortoise shells cannot be imported anymore, Nagasaki tortoise shell works have become a rare and precious traditional craft.


Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts - History Photo provided by Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts Kizan []

It is said that tortoise shell crafts were first imported from China during the Asuka period (538-710). Some ancient tortoise shell works are even stocked in the treasure house (called Shosoin) of the Todai-ji in Nara.
Tortoise shells began to be imported to Nagasaki during the 17th century, leading to the start of the crafts. At the time, tortoise shells were thought to bring a long life and hairpins and combs made of them were loved by wealthy families all over the country.
However, these high-grade crafts were very expensive and there was a ban against them at the end of the 15th century due to sumptuary laws. They were luxury items untouchable by the common people.
In the 19th century, Japan began to open its ports to foreign countries and more visitors from different lands made their way into the country. Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts were very popular among these new visitors too.
The artisans then researched ways to adapt their products to their new customers so they could easily be used abroad too. Their wide range of items was loved by many, Japanese or not, and greatly participated in their raise in popularity.

General Production Process

Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts - General Production Process Photo provided by Nagasaki tortoise shell crafts Kizan []

  1. 1. The design First, we make a sketch.
    There are many restrictions in the size and thickness of our materials as they are all natural.

  2. 2. Choosing the materials We choose from Hawksbill turtle's carapace, nails or abdomen.
    The previously made design is then applied to the material.

  3. 3. Cutting The material is cut using a jigsaw.
    The difficult part is to cut accordingly to the design while preserving the beautiful natural colors and patterns.

  4. 4. Scraping Any impurities or dirt are carefully removed using small knives or rasps.

  5. 5. Prevention step To prevent any misalignment or disparity in the piece, it is tacked before the next step.

  6. 6. Pressing By applying pressure to the material, the thickness is uniformed.
    Contrary to other crafts, no glue is used, leading this technique to be called "the art of water and fire".
  7. 7. Iron pressing The shell is glued to a wooden base using egg whites and a hot iron.
  8. 8. Carving This is a very delicate step that requires concentration to carve just the necessary thickness, following the sketch.
  9. 9. Polishing The soft and beautiful shining amber is carefully polished.
  10. 10. Assembling Metallic parts are used to assemble the pieces together.

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