What is Urushi?
I am an urushi artist and a researcher–but what exactly is urushi?
Urushi is a coating material made from refined sap of trees called urushinoki. It has been traditionally used as adhesive, protective and decorative material for wood, paper and metal art and crafts in Japan as well as other Asian regions. Urushi becomes solid through chemical reaction of its enzyme, laccase, with oxygen in the air. After dried on surface, it protects materials from acid, alkali, and heat.
(Urushi sap pouring out of tree)
In Japan, there are professionals called “kakiko” (tree-tappers) who collect urushi from urushinoki trees. During collecting season from June to October or November, they make rounds of trees everyday except rainy days. They make a scratch on each tree once four days in order to give it enough time for self-cure. An experienced kakiko usually works on about 400 to 500 trees and make around 10 to 20 scratches, collecting 180cc to 200cc of urushi from each tree in one summer. After the season, they cut down the trees they tapped, and wait the stumps sprout out again and grow for the next 10 to 15 years.
History of Urushi in Japan
The history of urushi utilization in Japan dates back to about 9,000 years ago in Jomon Period. Since that time, it has been used as an adhesive and protective material for daily necessities, especially tableware, as well as aristocratic art crafts, buildings, and other industrial purposes. In order to meet the multiple demands, urushi was planted in areas all over the country.
The production of urushi reached its peak in Edo era, 17th to 18th century, when many daimyos (feudal loads) eagerly promoted cultivation of urushinoki. It was a profitable cash crop because, not only its tree-sap, but also its seeds could also be sold as material for candles.
It lasted until the Meiji Restoration in late 19th century, by which their hans (feudal domains) were disassembled. Along with industrialization, many sites abandoned its production. For the last 75 years, total production has declined from around 30 tons to 1 ton.
Compared to its highest peak of 800 tons in Edo era, it has diminished by 99.8%. Today only 1 to 2% of urushi used in Japan is supplied by domestic production; the other 98 to 99% of it are imported mainly from China.
(Source: Statistics Japan, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries）
Passing Down the Tradition
Recently, however, there can be seen a change in this downtrend. The most symbolic event was that the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan issued a notice that, from the year 2018, it is necessary to use domestically produced urushi for restoration of buildings designated as national treasures and important cultural properties.
To meet the increased demand, planting of urushinoki trees is now proceeded in various parts of Japan. However, trees are not the only key to protect our urushi culture; we need to increase people who tap trees, create tools, refine, sell urushi and make product/artwork with it–and people who love urushiware and use it.
With a hope to pass down the tradition to our next generation, I keep creating artwork with urushi and study on its possibilities.