The Wonders of URUSHI: 12,000-Year History of People and Lacquer in Japan
Period Tuesday,July 11 –Sunday, September 3, 2017
Venue Special Exhibition Galleries A&B, National Museum of Japanese History

Adults: ¥830 (¥560)
Senior high school & college students: ¥450 (¥250)
* Fees in parentheses apply to groups of 20 or more
* Admission to permanent exhibitions included
* Free admission for elementary & junior high school students
* Free admission for senior high school students every Saturday

Hours 9:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:30 p.m.)
* Open hours and days are subject to change.
Closed Mondays (When Monday is a national holiday, the Museum is closed the following Tuesday.)
Organizer National Museum of Japanese History
Urasoe Art Museum

Concept of the Exhibition

In the various regions of East and Southeast Asia, where lacquer trees grow, lacquer (urushi) craft technology distinctive to each region has been developed, thus fostering a unique urushi culture. While having many features in common and influencing one another, the urushi culture of these different regions, which could be described as urushi cultural zones, has been developing individually based on the differences in tree species, climatic conditions, ethnicity, and many other factors.

 Overviewing the Asian urushi culture as a whole, this special exhibition is the first attempt to comprehensively capture the urushi culture of the Japanese Archipelago on a timeline from the prehistoric Jomon period to the present based on an interdisciplinary approach that includes archeology, history, art history, folklore, botany, analytical science, and other fields.

 The exhibition is based on the result of the Collaborative Research (exhibit type) of the National Museum of Japanese History titled “The new establishment of Urushi Cultural History based on Interdisciplinary Research” conducted in 2013–15. Each section is structured to focus on the characteristics of urushi as a tree, various expansions of the urushi culture, distribution of urushi both in Japan and abroad, exchanges in technology and culture, and so forth. We also describe how the elucidation of the urushi culture was enabled by analytical methods, which have made remarkable developments in recent years.

Through the collaboration of researchers from humanities and natural sciences, we now know that there is a link between people from about 12,000 years ago and urushi trees in Japan. We hope that this exhibition provides you the opportunity to enhance your understanding of the deep, broad, and long history of our relationship with urushi, as well as to review the urushi culture.

Section 1  Urushi Trees andLacquer Culture

The culture of urushi, which utilizes sap extracted from urushi (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) and other species of trees, is unique to East and Southeast Asia.

What are the distinctive characteristics of urushi as a tree? Do urushi trees grow naturally in Japan? When did the culture of utilizing urushi begin? We expound these questions based on recent research in the fields of botany and archeology.

Section 2 Techniques of Lacquer

Since the Jomon period, lacquer craft using a variety of technologies has made broad-ranging developments. Its complex technology has produced various arts and crafts that were in demand depending on each historical period. We approach the prolific world of craftsmanship in the Japanese Archipelago through typical urushi craft technologies and their characteristics developed in each historical period.

Section 3  Life with Lacquer

The various lacquer-coated implements, utensils, and other items indicate how indispensable lacquerware was in the lives of people.

Urushi tree was used not only for making coating material but also for extracting wax from its fruit and making wooden floats and adhesives. Most of these uses of urushi have nearly disappeared today.

Section 4  Lacquer and Power

Since urushi sap was so precious, it was collected as tax in ancient times. Meanwhile, structures and furnishings utilizing a variety of urushi technology played an important role in displaying the power of transcendent deities or the prosperity and aesthetics of people with power. Here, while paying attention to the social and cultural roles played by urushi, we focus on the distribution of lacquer sap and lacquerware contingent with power and the symbolic nature of urushi and so forth.

Section 5  Lacquer on the Move

Produced and manufactured lacquerware was distributed throughout Japan as local specialty products, thus stimulating technology exchanges. In other Asian nations that have lacquer craft technology, unique lacquerware produced in each region became objects of trade. The export of lacquerware expanded to a global scale through orders from European countries after the latter half of the 16th century.

Recent research has clarified that lacquer sap as a raw material was also distributed throughout Asia. This section focuses on cultural exchanges of urushi both in Japan and overseas.

Section 6  The Present and Future of Lacquer

The lifestyle in Japan changed during modern times, and urushi craft also changed correspondingly.

We have to recognize that the well-developed urushi culture inherited from the past ages is currently in crisis. While understanding the present critical situation, we hope to reassess the excellent qualities of urushi and envision a new urushi culture.

Fragment of urushi wood directly dated 12600 years ago. Torihama shell midden site, Fukui. Wakasa History Museum, Incipient Jomon period. (Important Cultural Property) Red lacquered wooden ware with conch inlay.  Mukaida (18) site, Noheji Town Museum of History and Folklore, Early Jomon period (ca. 5500 years ago). Black-lacquered ware in shape of pitcher, Minamikata site, Okayama City Board of Education, Early to Middle Yayoi Period.
Black-lacquered plate with lacquer painting, excavated from site group in the city of Kamakura,  Kamakura City Board of Education,  13th to 14th century. (National treasure) Tebako (cosmetic box) with makie and mother-of-pearl inlaid design of wheels in stream. Tokyo National Museum, Heian period. Image: TNM Image Archives. Armor chest with design chrysanthemum and paulownia crest in maki-e. Inuyama castle, Momoyama period.
European style chest (with a stand) with design of fans in maki-e and mother-of-pearl inlay. National Museum of Japanese History, 17th Century. Lacquered helmet in the shape of rabbit ears. National Museum of Japanese History, Momoyama to Edo period. Set of furniture with design of diaper and bamboo,and aoi crests of hollyhock in maki-e, Cabinet (zushi-tana). Hayashibara Museum of Art, Edo period.
Sword Mountings for Daisho with scabbards black-lacquered sturgeon skin and polished out pattern, Hikone Castle Museum, Edo period. Lacqered small chair of imitated bamboo with Makie. Museum Meiji-mura, Meiji Period.