(DSC_10691) What is “japan”

Excuse my ignorance, but until about three years ago, I had never even heard of japan.

I was familiar with china. Everyone knows it.

Of course I had been around japan. I just didn’t realise that was what it was called.

The use of the term “japan” to refer to glossy lacquer ware from Japan apparently dates back to the 1600s, when Dutch traders brought precious lacquer handicrafts to Europe.

Put simply, “china” (porcelain) came from China, “japan” came from Japan.


(2) Lacquer is poisonousDSC_2412

But lacquer ware is safe.

Urushi is a Japanese word referring to the lacquer derived from the sap of the lacquer tree. The scientific name of the tree is Toxicodendron vernicifluum. My Latin stops at about “toxico,” but the rash caused by contact with the sap or even coming into proximity of a tree (for sensitive people) can continue for weeks, even months, I am told. I searched online for photos. Not pretty—trust me. But, for some strange reason, although I have been practicing lacquer work for over two years, I have never experienced a reaction. Knock on wood. Once the lacquer dries, it is considered completely safe.


(3) Urushi needs moisture to dry

Humidity is good—so the Japanese summer is the best time to do lacquer work. But maybe not the best time to nurse a rash. The students I work with take a break, but my teacher redoubles her efforts in summer. Lacquer ware taken to dry climates will deteriorate more easily. It should be used often, or wiped with a damp cloth, and possibly stored alongside water.DSC_2498


(4) Vermillion colouring used mercury

The brilliant orange-red colour known as vermillion was originally created using cinnabar, a common ore of mercury. Handling it is toxic to humans, but it is apparently stabilised in hardened lacquer. In modern lacquer ware, safer pigments are used to imitate the vermillion colour.



(5) Urushi as medicine? In ancient times (lacquer ware has been found in Japan dating back at least to 7,000 BC), the sap, known for its hardening properties, was sometimes used to stop bleeding. This is linked to point three above. Please do not try this at home. I guess the suffering of the blistering rash caused by lacquer was preferable to dying through blood loss. It has also been used in other even more gruesome medicinal applications. You probably don’t want to know—trust me.