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Give and Take in Harmony, Outside the Comfort Zone

2017.09.29

Urushi lacquerware is one of Japan’s most treasured and popular traditional tableware.  It is a coating material derived from lacquer tree resin, and it has been in use since 9000 years ago in Japan.  They still appear daily at dining tables, but plastic replicas have replaced them in many regular households.  The genuine lacquerwares are mainly used in catering, as gifts, Buddhist religious items, small furniture for tea ceremonies, using gold and silver paints, and are a recognised art form.

Proud to be the Largest Producer

The largest and probably the oldest producing area is the Kawada district of Sabae City in Fukui prefecture.  The local history book tells that the lacquerware production in Kawada was first encouraged by a young Emperor 1500 years ago.  One of the local craftsmen was commissioned to fix his crown.  Not only did he do a great job, but he also presented the Emperor with a traditional lacquer bowl, which impressed the Emperor greatly.  Ever since, “Kawada Nuri” has been almost synonymous with Echizen Lacquerware throughout history.  Echizen’s share of lacquerware utensil sales in the catering sector is around 80%.  It is the result of factories showing versatility and flexibility to match the market needs from everyday use to special occasions.  They did not stubbornly stick to the tradition but developed an effective use of imported and artificial resin if requested, to achieve the best result within budget.  It was the key to success until a decline in the population started to hit the city.

Traditional Skills Need Nurturing

Like many other traditional crafts and industries, Kawada suffered a dwindling in the population of skilled craftsmen after the rapid economic development in the 1970s.  The current count is 142 people, while at the recent peak in 1992, it was 258.

Then the turning point came in 2004. Heavy rain and flooding devastated Kawada district, and many local craft products were damaged.  It was a brutal shock for the local people, and the helping hands came from young artists outside.

Businesses could not sell damaged products, but these young artists saw them as a fantastic resource. An unlikely collaboration started as the Kawada Art Camp, and it flourished.  Art students from mainly the Kyoto/Osaka area stayed in an old house for one month in August 2005, creating freely with the inspiration they obtained from local nature, history, and traditional craftsmanship. The camp reached its current format in 2006, taking sixty students every year, and is still going strong in 2017, winning several design and community awards. The students are keen to return what they have during their stay by organising and contributing to community projects.

To date, 850 people have influenced the Kawada district, and they are now emerging as leaders themselves, helping their second home from outside.  Some permanently moved in.

Encouraged and Motivated for Future

Seeing the positive energy that the outsiders bring in, local government and commercial bodies started subsidising living costs for the apprentices from outside of the area. 17 people have already used the opportunity and integrated into local businesses. Their voices reflect the flexibility and generosity of the receiving side. One new generation craftsman, age 34, moved from Chiba prefecture. Eleven years earlier, as she intently watched a demonstration at the local visitor’s centre, the master invited her to visit his factory.  It was this surprisingly approachable attitude that made her leave her banking job, retrain as a craftsman, and move in.

She says that the industry may be in decline, but the people working at Kawada are forward-looking and very positive.  She is hopeful that she can be one of these masters one day.

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