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Kazumi Murose holds one of his urushi pieces, "Gift From Heaven," a box for letters with design in maki-e and mother of pearl inlay on board the Asuka II. Photo: Jake Price for Japan Contemporaries 

The Spiritual Significance of Urushi Lacquerwork in the Era of Climate Change

By Kyoko Sato & Jake Price, June 11, 2024

After leaving from the Port of Yokohama, making stops in Europe and being diverted because of the war in the Middle East and thus traveling around the Horn of Africa, the Asuka II finally anchored alongside the West Side Highway at Pier 90 in New York after traveling nearly 20,000 miles. The Asuka II, a cruise ship and floating museum that hails from the Port of Yokohama, aimed to introduce and promote Kōgei, a term that encompasses "traditional arts and crafts," to American audiences. On board were Living National Treasures Kazumi Murose (maki-e lacquerware) and Genjiro Okura (Noh musician). Sponsored by Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) as part of the "MUFG Craft Project," the event was organized by TAKUMI Art du Japon. It featured a panel discussion with former Commissioner of the Agency for Cultural Affairs Seiichi Kondo and Monika Bincsik, curator of Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The rich history of Japan is inextricably linked to the skilled craftsmen and their supporters who have engaged in traditional Kōgei over the centuries. A diverse array of techniques and crafts have evolved alongside Japanese society. However, many of these time-honored traditions now face the threat of extinction due to changing lifestyles and dwindling access to raw materials in part due to climate change. In the face of these challenges, artisans are working to prevent the interruption of this long artisanal heritage. Through diligent study and a creative shift in perspective, they are finding ways to generate new artisanal goods that are suitable for modern times while still respecting venerable traditions.

To specifically address the challenges that artisans face the "MUFG Craft Project,"aims to create opportunities for craftspeople to innovate and take on challenges, as well as opportunities for interaction between artisans and users, while conveying to a broad audience the new value and appeal of craft that emerges from these opportunities. 

Under the umbrella term of Kōgei the Asuka II contained many items that fit under the lacquerware family. Murose is considered a lacquerware artist, however, he believes that his craft should specifically be called "urushi," emphasizing that urushi is derived from Japan's nature and each item is unique. Murose uses the same techniques as artisans from 1,300 years ago. Urushiware can last 1,000 years and will eventually return to nature. Japanese people have been making urushi art for over 10,000 years.

Urushi is a natural lacquer secreted by the urushi tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) when it is precisely cut. Harvesting urushi is difficult. After a sapling is planted it takes an average of twelve years before a tree is big enough to be tapped and after it is tapped the tree is cut down. However, once the tree is cut down, its life cycle does not end: new shoots will spring up from the roots and by careful selection, the next generation of trees can be tapped in ten years instead of twelve. The urushi which is opaque pale beige in colour, oozes out of the grooves and the urushi tappers carefully scrape off the sap a drop at a time leaving sufficient for the tree to heal. This process continues until late autumn when as much urushi can be derived as possible. In all, only a scant 250ml~ 300ml of urushi comes from the tree. The tree can be found in most prefectures and because of that, every prefecture also has a distinct signature. The drawing of the sap can only be done during the rainy season and Murose believes that he is transmitting nature into his urushi.

When practicing his craft, Murose deeply contemplates the individuals who will ultimately use and appreciate his urushi. He believes that while industrial products can possess aesthetic beauty, they inherently lack a sense of spirituality. Murose's handcrafted urushi pieces are imbued with deeply rooted narratives that share the stories, history, and connection to the natural environment of Japan. Each work is a vessel carrying the rich cultural heritage and spiritual significance of this ancient tradition. Unlike western crafts which can be purely ornamental, Japanese crafts must have functionality as well. Whether it be a bento box, an item used once a year or even every decade, they all have a purpose. Even if an item is ornamental, then the intention and, therefor, its purpose is to bring joy.

 

The spirituality inherent in Murose's urushi lacquerwork stems from a healthy environment. The art form and environmental preservation are intrinsically linked. As we navigate the challenges posed by climate change, adopting a broader societal sense of reverence and respect for nature, akin to that embodied in urushi, can shift our priorities away from mere consumption toward a deeper appreciation for the natural world that sustains us. Embracing this spiritual connection to the environment can inform more sustainable values and practices to protect our planet's delicate ecosystems. Because urushi artists intimately connect with these ecosystems through their delicate craft, deriving inspiration and materials for their art, they possess a heightened awareness of the natural world's importance and the need to preserve it for the enrichment it brings to all.

As he began his journey as a young craftsman, Murose was advised to:

  • Learn from people.

  • Learn from art.

  • Learn from nature.

 

While he embraced all three, he fully embraced the last. He believes nature must be listened to and dictate the process, not the other way around. Disregarding nature leads to detrimental consequences, as seen in the climate crisis. Last year, due to excessive heat and humidity, he was unable to cut a urushi tree for the first time in his life.

 

Murose might be among the last generation to use all-natural materials, as the climate crisis threatens thousands of years of tradition. For this reason, his current works are all the more precious because they are potentially the last urushi pieces, which now also symbolize the loss of a stable environment that has given craftsmen like him the ability to create for the past 10,000 years. Of this 10,000-year history, he has a mere 20 years' worth of wood on hand, and he wonders what will happen when it's gone. Owing to the climate crisis' effect on natural resources, his pupils might only be able to work with synthetically produced materials, which would erase the spiritual connection to nature that is so revered in his work. To compound his concerns, warmer temperatures have allowed urushi trees to grow in Hokkaido for the first time in known history.
 

In the context of the Asuka II docking in New York, one audience member privately expressed that an element that might help inform Murose's environmental concern could be seeing the innovative environmental programs here, as New York is where the world meets and innovates solutions. It's tragic that we are losing the Urushi lacquer trees native to Japan, so tremendous efforts must be made to maintain our climate. However, we must also preserve tradition. From a New Yorker's perspective, we must grow more trees on a global scale which will benefit every region of the planet. New York has programs like the Million Trees Initiative and The Billion Oyster Project that is specifically designed to protect coastlines by using oyster beds as breakpoints for storms and tsunamis, illustrating environmental innovation which Japan could learn and benifit from. Additionally, cultural crossover is occurring, with African Americans in New York using the traditional Japanese kimono dyeing technique to produce exceptional new art, innovating while honoring tradition. Seeing how New Yorkers innovate from both environmental and cultural perspectives can only strengthen the environment and arts in Japan, as embracing global collaboration allows preserving traditions through creative new applications.​

Hovering over the day was the situation in Wajima. As reported in these pages, an earthquake and tsunami struck the region, affecting many lacquerware artists. The craftspeople are still recovering, with their future uncertain. Many lost their factories, studios, and shops. Despite the despair, the region's thousands of years of tradition and history will not be destroyed by one tsunami and earthquake. However, increased ocean water and coastal erosion mean future tsunamis could reach further inland. The broader concern is what an unstable environment means for the future.

At 74, and with dramatic shifts in the climate already happening, Murose now teaches his disciples  restoration. Due to their excellent design, these crafts can remain in use for 1,000 years and holding onto what has already been produced is now all the more important. An example of urushi’s durability was seen on stage he spoke with Genjiro Okura and his son, Reijiro, who performed with a 400 year old tsuzumi, a hand drum, that had fallen into disrepair which Murose restored using urushi techniques.

When Okura played with his son, he emphasized that this craft can't be learned from books; it can only be transmitted from person to person. What we witnessed was not just a father passing his craft onto his son, but a connection to countless generations before them who have kept these traditions alive. On the stage, it felt as if thousands of invisible hands were all around them, connecting us to something vast and intrinsic to our existence.

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Kyoko Sato, Editor-in-Chief, has written for Art Review City, Shukan NY Seikatsu, New York Standard on Gallery Tagboat and ONBEAT. She founded the Asian Programming at WhiteBox, and served as its director from 2018 to 2021.

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Jake Price, photographer, contributes to National Geographic, The New Yorker, the BBC, and The New York Times. After the 3/11 triple disaster he helped raise ¥3,139,500 ($42,000) for tsunami victims in collaboration with Kodansha's 3/11 Photo Project. His immersive web doc on Miyagi, "Unknown Spring," was awarded by the World Press Photo Foundation, and his documentary on Fukushima, "The Invisible Season," premiered at the New York Film Festival.

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