Tsugaru lacquerware is a traditional Japanese craft that originated around 300 years ago in the Tsugaru region of Aomori Prefecture in northern Tohoku. Through rigorous layered application of lacquer paint, Tsugaru artisans are able to create durable and practical products adorned with beautiful designs. The “karanuri” technique, identified by its clustered raindrop patterns, is one of the most popular forms of Tsugaru lacquerware. It involves coating a base with lacquer, letting it dry, and polishing it. And that’s just the simple version – the actual process takes 48 steps! In this article, we will discuss the history, characteristics, and current state of Tsugaru lacquerware.
The History of Tsugaru Lacquerware
Tsugaru lacquerware was born in the Tsugaru region of Aomori Prefecture during the mid-Edo Period reign of Tsugaru Nobumasa (1646 – 1710). At the time, Japan had established a comprehensive system of highways, improving trade and driving economic growth in each of the feudal domains.
During this time, Nobumasa invited many lacquerers to his domain to serve in the workshops set up within his castle walls. Among them was Ikeda Genbei, a craftsman from the Wakasa Domain (modern-day Fukui Prefecture), whose son Gentaro inherited the art of “seikaiha” wave pattern lacquering after studying with the Seikai clan. This was supposedly the beginning of Tsugaru lacquerware.
After changing his name to Seikai Genbei, the artisan sought to introduce originality to the well-established craft, leading to the creation of a whole new lacquering process. While Tsugaru lacquerware was originally produced as sheaths for samurai swords, it slowly began to appear as everyday furnishings such as boxes to store letters, inkstone cases, food boxes, and more. Tsugaru lacquerware was frequently sent as gifts to the royal court by the lords of the Tsugaru Domain, increasing the value of the craft significantly.
While Japan’s domain system was abolished in 1871 during the Meiji Restoration, the newly-established Aomori Prefecture supported the craftspeople in forming an association to preserve their art. It even won an award at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair!
While efforts were made to step up production and popularize the craft even further, the economic strife of the Great Depression of 1929 and the production limitations of WWII battered the industry with significant loss.
After the war ended, steps were taken to revitalize Tsugaru lacquerware and make it famous again. In 1975, Tsugaru lacquerware, Aizu lacquerware, and Wajima lacquerware were designated as traditional Japanese crafts by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. This was the impetus the craft needed to begin improving its small-scale, inefficient production process, which had been plaguing the industry since its inception.
Since then, Tsugaru lacquerware has become Aomori’s defining traditional craft, a distinction it enjoys to this day.
Characteristics of Tsugaru Lacquerware
Tsugaru lacquerware is known for being durable and practical while flaunting elegant, mesmerizing patterns. To achieve this beauty, artisans use a technique called “togidashi kawarinuri,” which involves the repeated layering and polishing of lacquer paint. Through this, artisans can achieve strong, durable creations affixed with complex, beautiful designs.
The most popular Tsugaru lacquerware patterns include “karanuri,” “nanakonuri,” “monshanuri,” and “nishikinuri”.
Karanuri is the most popular style of Tsugaru lacquerware. It boasts sporadic patterns resembling raindrops achieved through 48 steps of applying, drying, and polishing. The technique already existed prior to 1715 and was modeled after the designs on goods imported from China.
The nanakonuri design is achieved by spreading flower seeds over a vessel which, after lacquering, create small circle patterns reminiscent of fish eggs. This is why its name “nanako” is sometimes written with the Japanese characters “fish” and “child.”
Monshanuri sees a black powder made from burned rice husks (known as “sha” in Japanese) sprinkled over black lacquer paint and applied on a ware and polished. Being the most unique of all the togidashi techniques, it is often considered the definitive Tsugaru lacquerware pattern.
Starting with a nanakonuri design, the flamboyant nishikinuri style adds black lacquer cherry blossoms accompanied by a lateral maze-like series of painted-on manji (卍) shapes.
Tsugaru Lacquerware Today
Tsugaru lacquerware has changed a lot over the years. From overhauling its small-scale production process, cultivating skilled craftspeople, strengthening organizations and unions, and developing new products, the constant drive for innovation has propelled this ancient craft into the modern age.
However, in the unpredictable landscape of our ever-changing modern society, the biggest problem faced by Tsugaru lacquerware is marketing. That’s why, for the last few years, Tsugaru lacquerware has encouraged cooperation between young artists of different backgrounds through social events and public art exhibitions.
These efforts culminated in the Royal Collection brand, which is a result of collaboration between Tsugaru lacquerware and major Tokyo glass, pottery, and jewelry makers. You can expect to see more ambitious innovation in the future.
[Thermometer] Saikoro (Tsugaru Nuri)
The above product was born from a collaboration between Empex, an esteemed maker of thermometers, hygrometers, and barometers, together with the veteran artisans of Ishioka Studio, a long-established Tsugaru lacquerware workshop. This exquisite and extraordinarily precise combination thermometer, hygrometer, and barometer takes a total of 4 months to produce (one month to complete the mechanical parts and three months to apply the Tsugaru lacquer). It’s an entirely domestic production given life by the hands of skilled artisans and mechanics. Undergoing a rigorous inspection before being sold, this piece comes with a 1-year special guarantee. Being impossible to mass-produce, it makes a one-of-a-kind present for that special someone in your life.
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you’d really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the retailer’s website for more information.
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.