Shitsugei (Lacquer Crafts) - Atsuo Yamaguchi
Although it is commonly believed that China originally introduced lacquer techniques to Japan, Japan independently developed lacquer ware into a unique work of art. One of the most iconic lacquer art is Makie, which is a type of lacquer decorated with gold and silver paintings. Today, lacquer ware is most frequently associated with Japan. Atsuo Yamaguchi is one of the few remaining lacquerers in Tokyo. While specializing in lacquering utensils for tea ceremony and flower arrangements, he is also passionate in utilizing his special skillset, which he gained through years of experience in crafting special orders, to craft new and fascinating goods.
What is unique about Edo lacquer ware?
"Originally, Kyoto was the main producer of lacquer ware. The technique was introduced to Tokyo when Ieyasu Tokugawa, the shogunate in the early 17th century who started the Edo period, brought craftsmen to his newly established government in Tokyo. It is commonly said that Kyoto has an aristocratic culture, whereas Tokyo has a samurai culture. This is why Kyoto's Makie lacquer ware is painted lavishly with gold and silver, whereas Edo's lacquer is decorated with a single pine leaf. Edo's lacquer is similar to Kimono with a focus on the inner fabric. Edo lacquer ware should be simple, yet stylish."
Your father passed away when you were in your twenties?
"I entered my apprenticeship after graduating junior high school. Seven years later, when I was 22 years old, my father passed away. Up until then, I had been in tasked with laying the base coat and knew very little about lacquering. While my father was hospitalized, I would take him my work and ask him to evaluate it. I would then take my work to a retailer, who criticized my work and called it "disgusting" and "unsellable". That retailer was a scary, but he had a good heart. He would show me works of other craftsmen and say, 'Can you see that this one looks much nicer? I will pay you the same amount if you can craft something as beautiful as this.' Although I felt ashamed, his criticism gave me encouragement."
So, you taught yourself?
"Yes. Other lacquer craftsmen would advise me on where to purchase lacquer, but would never teach me their techniques. I recalled watching my father craft lacquer ware when I was a child and practiced hundreds upon hundreds of times."
What is the difficult part in lacquering?
"To create the perfect shade of vermilion. The shade depends on how quickly it dries. If dried quickly, it turns brownish, whereas it will become a soft shade of vermilion when dried slowly. The color changes significantly if it is sunny on one day and rains of the next. Each craftsman has his own preference and idea of the perfect shade of vermillion. Personally, I am not particularly fond of a bright, vibrant red."
Is each process involved in lacquering completed by different specialists?
"While regional producers segment each individual process, most Tokyo craftsmen complete all the processes on their own. I guess you could say that there are woodcrafters, lacquer-layering craftsmen, and Makie painters, but that is the extent of the segmentation in Tokyo and I scrape and polish the wood myself. I think that I tend to get a lot of special orders and orders for one-of-a-kind items, because I have a wide skillset and can complete most of the processes on my own."
Why did you start painting tea ceremony utensils?
"My father was a utensil lacquerer who could layer even the most complicated items with lacquer. Knowing my background, a fellow lacquerer introduced me to a retailer in Tokyo that sold utensils for tea ceremony and flower arrangements. While I initially got orders for fixing utensils, I gradually started to receive special orders directly from masters of a tea ceremony school. I took tea ceremony classes for two years in order to better understand how my utensils were being used. Unfortunately, this retailer went out of business in my early thirties."
Despite these harsh conditions you continue to be successful.
"It's all thanks to the Sakusuke brand name that my father stamped on all his crafts. When I went to sell my crafts to retailers, they recognized our brand and gradually gave me work. It made me realize that my father's delicate and meticulous work was truly appreciated."
You proactively collaborate with upcoming designers to craft new items.
"Lacquer ware is intended for everyday use, however, modern lifestyle changes have reduced the opportunity for people to use lacquer ware. This is why I started applying lacquer to modern, everyday items, such as stationery and peripheral computer equipment. In order to reduce costs, the finishing touches are slightly less polished than traditional ware, but I always use authentic Japanese lacquer. I do believe that the demand for authentic, high-quality items, similar to orders from masters of tea ceremony schools, will grow in the near future."
Can lacquer be applied on materials other than wood?
"Lacquer has traditionally been considered to be used on wood, but it can actually be layered over plastic and stainless steel. The question is how durable will it be. Looking at lacquer ware stored at the Shosoin treasure house, we know that lacquer on wood can last for hundreds of years. But considering plastic is relatively new, no one is certain how many years lacquered plastic will last. Regardless, I have recently become interested in applying lacquer to different materials. I want to work with people from different industries because it is difficult to truly relay the beauty of authentic lacquer."
Photographer: Yasuko Okamura
Organizer: Taizen Sugamura
1953: Born in Sumida Ward.
Started Crafting Lacquer Ware at the Age of 16.
Fourth Generation Lacquer.
Second Generation of the Sakusuke Brand.
1983: Member of Edogawa City Traditional Craft Society.
Won Many Awards.
Atsuo Yamaguchi's Masterpiece
Round Drink Coaster (Set of Five) Square Drink Coaster (Set of Five)
This drink coaster displays the glossy, polished appearance of lacquer ware and will bring elegance to your dining table.
Atsuo Yamaguchi's years of experienced lacquering skills were combined with Takuya Matsumoto's (Art Student at Tama Art University) modern perspective to create a new concept for lacquer.