Lacquer comes from the sap of the lacquer tree (Rhus vernicifera), which is indigenous to Japan, China, and Korea. The liquid lacquer, usually coloured black or red, is applied in repeated layers to an object base, frequently made of finely sanded wood. Each layer is allowed to dry and then sanded before the next layer is applied. The extremely time consuming and labour intensive technique of applying layer upon layer of lacquer can take months or years to complete before the object is ready to be decorated. Because of the durable nature of the material, lacquer objects have kept their beauty and survived centuries. European made lacquers, while similar in appearance, are different from those from the East as they are not made with true lacquer tree sap, but rather various varnishes and resins made to resemble Oriental lacquer. World fairs such as the 1873 Vienna Exposition did much to promote the Japanese lacquers, which had been publicly exhibited in small quantities in Europe as early as the Great Exhibition of London in 1851.
Lacquer comes from the sap of the lacquer tree (Rhus vernicifera), which is indigenous to Japan, China, and Korea. The liquid lacquer, usually coloured black or red, is applied in repeated layers to an object base, frequently made of finely sanded wood. Each layer is allowed to dry and then sanded before the next layer is applied. The extremely time consuming and labour intensive technique of applying layer upon layer of lacquer can take months or years to complete before the object is ready to be decorated. Because of the durable nature of the material, lacquer objects have kept their beauty and survived centuries. European made lacquers, while similar in appearance, are different from those from the East as they are not made with true lacquer tree sap, but rather various varnishes and resins made to resemble Oriental lacquer. World fairs such as the 1873 Vienna Exposition did much to promote the Japanese lacquers, which had been publicly exhibited in small quantities in Europe as early as the Great Exhibition of London in 1851.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Tea Jar (Natsume)

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Neil B. Ivory

Maki-e lacquered decoration on wood
6.7 x 6.6 (diam.) cm
1983.Ee.1a-b
© The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts


The origin of lacquerware in Japan is unclear, but it is generally assumed to have begun in the fourth millenium B.C. By the mid-6th century, a period characterized by great artistic activity due to the influx of Chinese and Korean influences like Buddhism, there was an increase in lacquer production, including both ecclesiastical and domestic objects.
The origin of lacquerware in Japan is unclear, but it is generally assumed to have begun in the fourth millenium B.C. By the mid-6th century, a period characterized by great artistic activity due to the influx of Chinese and Korean influences like Buddhism, there was an increase in lacquer production, including both ecclesiastical and domestic objects.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Writing Box

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Neil B. Ivory

Maki-e lacquer on wood, silver, slate
4.7 x 9 x 7.2 cm
1983.Ee.2
© The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts


The Japanese tradition of maki-e decoration, created by sprinkling metal powders in various colours (usually gold and silver) onto the still-wet lacquer surface, were combined with Chinese-styled symmetrical patterns and improved techniques to create a highly sophisticated, authentic Japanese style.
The Japanese tradition of maki-e decoration, created by sprinkling metal powders in various colours (usually gold and silver) onto the still-wet lacquer surface, were combined with Chinese-styled symmetrical patterns and improved techniques to create a highly sophisticated, authentic Japanese style.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

This writing box is an excellent example of Japanese lacquer techniques and designs.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Neil B. Ivory

Maki-e lacquer on wood, silver, slate
4.7 x 9 x 7.2 cm
1983.Ee.2
© The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts


Lacquer objects were considered to be among a family’s most valuable and prestigious possessions. As a rule, upper-class homes owned several exquisite lacquers, often including ceremonial incense boxes like this one. As a result of the relative peace and prosperity of the Edo period, a growing consumer class created an increase in wealthy patrons to the arts. Daimyo, samurai, and members of the middle class considered the visual display of one’s personal rank and wealth most important eagerly purchased lacquer objects. Actually, only high ranking samurai were permitted to own silver and gold lacquer, but the shogun could do little to monitor the possessions found in private homes, and Japanese of all ranks took every opportunity to commission beautiful, lavishly decorated lacquers of the highest quality they could afford. Even the merchant class, who were becoming increasingly wealthy despite their lowly rank, coveted lacquered objects among their prize possessions. The incense ceremony, like the tea ceremony, incorporated beautiful objects like this box, which were appreciated for their aesthetics and function. This box would have been used to hold the essences tha Read More
Lacquer objects were considered to be among a family’s most valuable and prestigious possessions. As a rule, upper-class homes owned several exquisite lacquers, often including ceremonial incense boxes like this one. As a result of the relative peace and prosperity of the Edo period, a growing consumer class created an increase in wealthy patrons to the arts. Daimyo, samurai, and members of the middle class considered the visual display of one’s personal rank and wealth most important eagerly purchased lacquer objects. Actually, only high ranking samurai were permitted to own silver and gold lacquer, but the shogun could do little to monitor the possessions found in private homes, and Japanese of all ranks took every opportunity to commission beautiful, lavishly decorated lacquers of the highest quality they could afford. Even the merchant class, who were becoming increasingly wealthy despite their lowly rank, coveted lacquered objects among their prize possessions. The incense ceremony, like the tea ceremony, incorporated beautiful objects like this box, which were appreciated for their aesthetics and function. This box would have been used to hold the essences that were burned during the ceremony. Participants in the ceremony were expected to guess which essence was being burned, and to be aware of the literary or historical allusion to the scent in question.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Incense ceremony box (Kobako)

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of F. Gerald Robinson

Laque maki-e sur bois, or, étain 15,3 cm x 12,1 cm x 4,4 cm
15.3 x 12.1 x 4.4 cm
1962.Ee.2
© The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts


When Japan opened to the West, the foreign interest in lacquers greatly expanded the industry. As a result, much of the Japanese production deteriorated in quality to supply the demands of the export market. However, fine quality lacquers continued to be made for the more knowledgeable collector alongside these mass-produced wares. It soon became clear, however, that only superior quality lacquers were in demand from the West. As a result, the Meiji authorities controlled the quality of export production, and assisted in the marketing of lacquers in the West. Where lacquerers had previously made traditional objects like inro, netsuke, and swords scabbards for the samurai class, they now turned their talents to boxes, vases, trays, and tables popular with the Western collectors.

The sake cup is a symbol of earlier Japanese military traditions, when warriors drank a shot of sake before battle to gain courage.
When Japan opened to the West, the foreign interest in lacquers greatly expanded the industry. As a result, much of the Japanese production deteriorated in quality to supply the demands of the export market. However, fine quality lacquers continued to be made for the more knowledgeable collector alongside these mass-produced wares. It soon became clear, however, that only superior quality lacquers were in demand from the West. As a result, the Meiji authorities controlled the quality of export production, and assisted in the marketing of lacquers in the West. Where lacquerers had previously made traditional objects like inro, netsuke, and swords scabbards for the samurai class, they now turned their talents to boxes, vases, trays, and tables popular with the Western collectors.

The sake cup is a symbol of earlier Japanese military traditions, when warriors drank a shot of sake before battle to gain courage.

© 1999, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

This red lacquer sake cup, bearing the inscription eleventh month, 35th year Meiji (1902), was presented to regiment officer, Iwamoto Tomo.

Vancouver Museum, Gift of Edith Low-Beer

Lacquered wood
diam.: 9 cm
DB 1412
© Vancouver Museum


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Describe the origins and history of traditional Japanese lacquerware
  • Describe the unique techniques employed in Japanese lacquerware
  • Describe the effects of the Meiji restoration on lacquerware production and design
  • Appreciate that cultural shifts in style are often an amalgamation of styles rather than a replacement of styles
  • Appreciate the aesthetic qualities of Japanese artistry
  • Recognize, in words and pictures, elements of Japanese decorative arts

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