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The master craftsman protecting Japan's ancient lacquerware tradition

Updated 5th April 2018
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The master craftsman protecting Japan's ancient lacquerware tradition
Written by Oscar Holland, CNNYoko Wakatsuki, CNN
This story is part of "Masters of Experience," a series exploring the world's most original experiences, as told by the visionaries who crafted them.
The ancient craft of urushi, or Japanese lacquerware, is one of Asia's oldest artistic traditions. Evidence for the use of lacquer -- a tree sap used to coat and decorate objects like boxes, bowls and furniture -- dates back approximately 9,000 years.
But although Kazumi Murose, one of the craft's greatest living practitioners, is grounded in history, he's not restricted by it. When not producing intricately decorated wooden items, the 67-year-old Twitter user can be found giving TED talks and designing handsets for the luxury cellphone brand Vertu.
"It is the creator's job to turn the atmosphere of the age into tangible shape, whether you're a modern or traditional artist," he said.
Yet, whether through contemporary or conventional means, Murose's goal has remained the same: to protect a historic craft from obsolescence. A dedicated conservator and surveyor of lacquerware collections around the world, he was, in 2008, named a "Living National Treasure" -- a government accolade recognizing individuals who help preserve Japan's oldest traditions.
"Culture is different from civilization," Murose said. "What a robot does is not culture, it's civilization. Culture is what we create with our hands.
"Taking your time and undertaking something cumbersome is, for me, (the definition of) culture. I very much respect my predecessors who decided that it was important to stop the decay of these values, and to carry on this culture for the next generation."

Built to last

Collected from Asian lacquer trees, the musky-smelling sap essential to urushi is toxic to humans when wet. Once dried, however, it can be used as an adhesive or coating for wood, leather and other materials.
Murose specializes in two specific lacquerware techniques -- maki-e and raden. The former, (which literally translates as "sprinkled picture") sees him scattering gold and silver decorations onto or between layers of black or red lacquer. The latter involves the use of seashells, mother of pearl and other iridescent materials found in nature.
The result is a career's worth of delicate, yet striking, creations. From dainty and decorative to bold and practical, his output spans boxes, bowls, chessboards, tables, incense holders and even a harp.
Murose's pieces often look to nature, like pruned Japanese gardens rendered in lustrous gold. Other designs are altogether more abstract. But he has often focused on function over form, eschewing the sculptural tendencies of many of his contemporaries. His creations, while too valuable to enter daily use, are technically functional and built to last.
"Urushi won't decay for hundreds of years -- it's the law of the nature," Murose said. "It is made and used on a timescale that is centuries beyond that of human lives.
"We must make something that people will still love in hundreds of years' time. (My work) is not only for the satisfaction of today's people."
This idea of timelessness has inspired Murose to slow the speed at which he creates his lacquerware. An item can take ten months to a year to complete, he said -- even two for a larger piece. He once spent five years working on a huge wooden chest.
A single surface requires multiple layers of lacquer, with each taking between three and five days to dry. Urushi is a craft that rewards the patient.
"What I learned the most from urushi is how difficult it is to wait," Murose said. "In the modern world, you must get results and produce answers immediately. But there is no paint on earth that needs as much waiting time (as lacquer).
"In today's Japan, people seek things that are fast, light, short and compact. Urushi offers totally opposing values. When I was young, I wanted to see fast outcomes, but urushi taught that young man (the value of) endurance."

A craft under threat

Murose grew up surrounded by lacquerware. The son of renowned urushi artist, he first helped his father on a wall decoration at the age of 14. The experience -- and the public recognition the piece received -- made a lasting impression, he said.
Nonetheless, the young craftsman was uncertain about the prospect of a career in urushi. With the tradition under threat, people around Murose advised him against dedicating himself to a dying art.
"In the end, I decided to go for it," he explained. "If this art was to become extinct, then I would just become the last person to do it, I thought. I wanted to see how things went ... and if (urushi) did really disappear, that would make it easier to give up what I really wanted."
Despite Murose's best efforts, he remains worried about the craft's future. But he also takes encouragement from an apparent resurgence both inside and outside Japan. With his pieces previously exhibited at the British Museum and the V&A in London, Murose reported an increased interest in his work from overseas buyers.
A tree sap from a Lacquer tree is used to coat and decorate objects
A tree sap from a Lacquer tree is used to coat and decorate objects Credit: Wikipedia creative commons
"In the past 40 years, the number of people working in this industry has declined," he admitted. "However, the trend has changed to an increase in the last 10 years, and some young people are joining us.
"With 40 years of long downhill, a little uphill is a positive sign for us."