Japanese Crafts: A Guide to Wakasa Lacquerware

Hailing from Fukui Prefecture in the Hokuriku region, Wakasa lacquerware is a traditional Japanese craft known for its exquisite designs meant to invoke images of the deep ocean or starry sky. Once regarded as purely a work of art, modern-day Wakasa lacquerware has become a trusted everyday item renowned for being sturdy and practical. In this article, we’ll discuss the history, characteristics, and production process behind the craft and art of Wakasa lacquerware.

The History of Wakasa Lacquerware

Wakasa lacquerware refers to the lacquerware items produced in and around the city of Obama in Fukui Prefecture. It’s most known for its distinctive patterns reminiscent of the seabed, which is created using eggshells, mother-of-pearl, pine needles, and more. Inducing a profound sense of elegance and beauty, Wakasa lacquerware has long been treasured as an exquisite form of Japanese art. However, its sturdiness and versatility have recently led to its increased use as an everyday item. In fact, more than 80% of all domestically produced Japanese lacquer chopsticks are Wakasa lacquerware.

Beginning in the early days of the Edo period (1603 – 1868), the history of Wakasa lacquerware is long and extensive. The craft originated with Sanjuro Matsuura, a lacquerer living in the Obama Domain (present-day Obama City, Fukui Prefecture). He created a piece of lacquerware based off Chinese techniques with a design inspired by the seabed of Wakasa Bay, a coastal formation stretching from Fukui Prefecture to Kyoto Prefecture. Matsuura worked tirelessly to improve his artform before finally perfecting the “Kikujin-nuri” seabed design. Later on, Matsuura’s apprentice Monemon Nishiwaki furthered the art by devising the “Isokusa-nuri” technique, which featured designs of small waves washing up on a beach.

Wakasa lacquerware saw its popularity peak during the mid to late Edo period (1650 – 1800), during which time modern techniques such as the use of eggshells and gold leaf were adopted. The aforementioned Isokusa-nuri technique was likewise popularized during this time. Tadakatsu Sakai, the lord of the Obama domain at the time, gave this craft the name “Wakasa-nuri” (Wakasa lacquerware) and actively promoted it as a side business for lower-class samurai, leading to the birth of numerous talented craftspeople producing many examples of the craft. A multitude of exuberant design techniques were developed at this time, such as “raden” (decoration using the shiny, rainbow-colored inner side of a limpet or other mollusk shell) and “makie” (creating patterns using translucent lacquer and sprinkling silver or gold dust over it), leading to Wakasa lacquerware becoming a beloved household item for the upper classes.

During the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), the popularity of Wakasa lacquerware began to expand overseas. It was exhibited during the Paris World’s Fair in 1878, after which it started to be exported overseas in 1883, eventually becoming one of the most popular Japanese crafts around the world.

The Characteristics of Wakasa Lacquerware

Wakasa lacquerware is known for the use of seashells, eggshells, and other materials to create its distinct patterns, which sparkle beautifully against a black background, bringing to mind a deep ocean or a starry sky. Wakasa lacquerware is usually created by inlaying pieces of seashell or eggshell on lacquered wood to create a pattern, which is then painted with lacquer over and over again and polished with stone or charcoal in a process known as “togidashi.” This technique brings out the lacquer-covered patterns, creating a distinctively elegant piece bursting with artistic character. Being methodically crafted over the course of over a year, Wakasa lacquerware is heavily resistant to water and heat, making it the perfect technique for producing durable, hard-to-break everyday items.

Rather than being made through a division of labor, Wakasa lacquerware is largely crafted from start to finish by a single artisan. While there are over 60 individual steps in the process, the making of Wakasa lacquerware can be broadly divided into the following seven:

・Cloth Pasting
Fabric or washi paper is pasted onto the wood.

・Undercoating
An undercoat is applied using a mixture of lacquer, clay, and adhesive to prepare the surface.

・Intermediate Coating
Once the undercoat dries, a grindstone is used to polish and even out the surface. Another coat of lacquer is then applied in preparation for the pattern.

・Creating Patterns
Additional lacquer is applied and various materials including seashells, eggshells, and mother-of-pearl are inlaid to create a design.

・Mixed Coating
Once the patterns have been affixed, the lacquerware is painted and polished numerous times. “Mixed coating” involves the use of two or more lacquer colors painted on top of each other to create a unique luster and hue.

・Stone and Charcoal Polishing
Using various grindstones, the lacquerware is thoroughly polished to bring out the patterns. Charcoal is then used to smooth out the surface.  

・Polishing
The surface is then further polished using oil, an abrasive compound, or another material.

Wakasa Lacquerware Today

While Wakasa lacquerware was once a high-class product exclusive to court nobles, feudal lords, and wealthy merchants, the development of items such as chemically produced paints after WWII allowed the craft to be mass-produced, making it accessible to ordinary people. In 1978 it was officially registered as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and in 2008 Wakasa lacquerware chopsticks were presented to President Barack Obama. Undoubtedly, Wakasa lacquerware is one of Japan’s defining traditional crafts.

While Wakasa lacquerware is now available in the form of bowls, trays, and accessories, it most often appears as chopsticks. With their thin, sharply polished tip, Wakasa lacquer chopsticks are commonly known as “Crane’s Beaks,” and are often given as gifts to older people to celebrate their long, prosperous lives.

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WAKASA-NURI CHOPSTICKS COUPLE CHOPSTICKS, SHELL INCENSE PAIR

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Related articles:

▶ Traditional Japanese Crafts: The Complete Guide to Japanese Lacquerware

▶ Japanese Pottery, Porcelain, and Lacquerware: What’s the Difference and How to Take Care of Them?

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*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.

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