Ryukyu lacquerware Photo:Okinawa Convention&Visitors Bureau

Ryukyu lacquerware Ryukyu shikki

Splendor engraving the history of foreign trade
Beautiful flower coating using vermillion and black lacquer


What is Ryukyu lacquerware ?

Ryukyu lacquerware is produced in Okinawa Prefecture. Lacquer ware techniques imported from China were cleverly adapted in the development of Ryukyu lacquer ware unique to Okinawa, and the technology and artistry involved in this process are highly praised not only in Japan, but also overseas.
The characteristic of Ryukyu lacquer ware is its great diversity of decorating techniques. Tsuikin, Okinawa’s proprietary decoration technique, was completed by taking a cue from the Chinese technique known as tsuishu (red lacquerware with relief patterns). This technique makes it possible to achieve three-dimensional expression, and it has a style that cannot be found in other producing areas.
Also popular is the vivid, novel magnificence seen in forms such as hananuri, which features a beautiful and bold contrast between traditional vermillion lacquer and black lacquer. Other techniques include chinkin (gold inlaying), haku-e (foil lacquering) and raden (mother-of-pearl).
Okinawa is greatly blessed with climatic conditions that are ideal for the production of lacquer, and it was possible to collect high-quality raw materials such as the Indian coral tree , Japanese snowbell, and the Okinawan banyan tree. Ryukyu lacquer ware has established a unique status thanks to its favorable conditions as a producing area and the great efforts of its artisans.


Ryukyu lacquerware - History Photo:Okinawa Convention&Visitors Bureau

The history of Ryukyu lacquerware starts around the 14th to 15th Centuries, during the Ryukyu Kingdom Period. The techniques of lacquer ware were brought across from China as trade with China prospered.
In the 15th Century, when the Ryukyu Kingdom was united, the Office of the Magistrate of Mother-of-Pearl was established in order to produce lacquer ware systematically. In the Ryukyu region, where politics and faith were closely connected, lacquer ornaments and necklace balls, etc. were used in religious services and ceremonies. Ryukyu samurai descendants and royalty originally used lacquer ware in positions of courtesy, connecting people and gods.
In 1609, when the Satsuma Domain invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom, the confiscated Ryukyu lacquer wares were presented to Ieyasu TOKUGAWA. After the advances of the Satsuma Domain, the diplomatic ties with Japan became stronger than ties with China.
Ryukyu lacquer ware in the 16th to 17th Centuries centered on the production of articles using the chinkin (gold inlaying) technique with red and green lacquer, and raden (mother-of-pearl) articles with red lacquer. In the 17th to 18th Centuries, there was a shift to finely detailed raden articles using red or blue turbo marmoratus on black lacquer. During the 18th to 19th Centuries, techniques such as chinkin (gold inlaying), haku-e (foil lacquering) and tsuikin were used on red lacquer. After the abolition of feudal domains in 1879, Ryukyu lacquer ware was produced by private workshops and lacquer ware companies.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wood base production The main wood bases used in Ryukyu lacquer ware are sashimono (cabinetwork) wood base for production of stacked boxes and serving trays, and the hikimono (turned item) wood base for production of bowls and trays. The wood that is used has been dried for approximately six months.
    Sashimono wood base production is the process of applying adhesive to a board, assembling, drying, and then forming an article by cutting with a plane.
    Hikimono wood base production uses either vertical sawing, with wood cut into round slices, or horizontal sawing, with wood cut lengthways.
  2. 2. Undercoating Surface scratches, cracks and small holes, etc. are carefully covered with an undercoating of niibi sand. This niibi sand undercoating is a mixture of small-grain sandstone and raw lacquer. This is ideal for coating coarse wood from the Indian coral tree , and thereafter an undercoating of kucha, a mixture of shimajiri mudstone powder and raw lacquer, is applied before the articles are dried.
  3. 3. Wet polishing This process involves grinding with grindstone or paper while applying water. Starting with rough paper, the articles are scoured while gradually switching to finer paper. This process is repeated several times between undercoating and lacquering.
  4. 4. Intermediate coating In order to improve the finish of the overcoating, lacquer mixed with a colorant of the same color as the overcoating is applied.
  5. 5. Overcoating Infra-red rays or ultraviolet rays are added to the raw lacquer and moisture is evaporated in a process known as kurome, producing transparent lacquer. Thick liquid formed by mixing lacquer with vermillion colorant is filtered with Japanese paper to produce lacquer for overcoating.
    Overcoating is a process in which the condition of the article is determined, so each piece is carefully coated using a strong paintbrush. The finish of the lacquer ware is affected by the atmospheric temperature and weather at the time of coating, so this is a process where the skills of the artisan come to the fore. Fine dust and air bubbles are carefully removed using a thin needle-like object before drying. The articles are then placed inside a rotating bath, and it is essential to maintain a condition where lacquer does not drip while rotating up and down. Depending on the atmospheric temperature when drying the lacquer, the color may be darkened or the lacquer may contract, so the level of humidity must be regulated carefully.
  6. 6. Decoration The characteristic of Ryukyu lacquer ware is its diversity of decorating techniques, which include raden (mother-of-pearl), chinkin (gold inlaying), haku-e (foil lacquering) and tsuikin.
    Raden (mother-of-pearl) is a form of decoration using turbo marmoratus or abalone. Shells are cut into thin pieces, and pieces that are patterned using a silkwork needle are then affixed to the vessel, on top of which lacquer is applied. With this technique, once the lacquer has dried, polishing is carried out using a mixture of charcoal and polishing powder until the shells appear, and finally glaze is produced with powder produced from antlers.
    Chinkin (gold inlaying) produces a pattern by embedding gold leaf in engraved lines. With this technique, a relief pattern is line-engraved onto the vessel using a chinkin knife, kurome lacquer is rubbed into the engraved lines, and application is made so that the gold leaf kept in place before drying out. After drying and wiping off, gold leaf remains in the lines.
    Haku-e (foil lacquering) outlines pictures drawn onto vessels with red iron oxide lacquer, after which the inside of the pattern is coated and gold leaf is affixed at the half-dried stage. This technique leaves a golden pattern when excess gold leaf is removed with a brush. Thereafter, once the article has been dried adequately, black lacquer is used to draw the outlines and finish the article.
    Tsuikin is a technique unique to Ryukyu lacquer ware, as a kneaded mixture of colorant and lacquer is affixed to the vessel by cutting out the pattern before cutting finer lines and finishing with coloring.

Where to Buy & More Information

Naha Traditional Craft Center

Naha Traditional Craft Center Photo:Okinawa Convention&Visitors Bureau

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