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The Deep Beauty of Lacquer Ware (Photos)
Creations by Living National Treasure Ōnishi Isao

Ōhashi Hiroshi (Photographer)[Profile]

Ōnishi Isao has been designated a living national treasure for his work in lacquer ware. The painstaking process of applying lacquer and polishing the surface over and over again results in objects of profound, quiet beauty.

Ōnishi Isao
Born in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1944. Graduated from junior high school and went on to work as a carpenter, automobile mechanic, and electrician, among other jobs. In 1974 he joined the workshop of Akaji Yūsai, designated a living national treasure for his lacquer work; Ōnishi received the same honor in 2002.

Lacquer ware produced in Japan has long been prized around the world. Just as porcelain dishes came to be known as “china,” lacquered dishes and other objects were once referred to simply as “japan,” gaining recognition as one of the key creative forms to come from East Asia.

Painstaking, Solitary Work

In 2002 Ōnishi Isao was designated a living national treasure for his work in lacquer ware. This title is awarded by the Agency for Cultural Affairs to individuals who maintain one of Japan’s officially defined “important intangible cultural heritages”—masters of craftsmanship or the performing arts who possess vital techniques and skills in some of the country’s most historically and artistically precious cultural pursuits. Ōnishi won the title for his work in kyūshitsu, a type of lacquer work involving, quite simply, the repeated application of lacquer to the object being crafted.

In most cases, lacquer artisans work with objects and ingredients made by others. But Ōnishi does it all himself. He crafts the wooden utensils, using numerous pieces called magewa, or “bent rings,” to create the basic form of the object that he will use as his canvas. He then mixes his own lacquer and applies the base, intermediate coats, and finish. It can take as long as eight months to produce a single piece.

“I take care at every stage of lacquering and polishing,” says Ōnishi. “It’s the repetition of careful effort that brings out the beauty of a piece of lacquer.”

He remains humble despite his status: “I’m pretty clumsy, so I have to constantly remind myself to take extra care over things. My approach is to avoid excessive ornamentation. I like to create my pieces using nothing more than lacquer and plain, steady craft. It’s the only way to get the job done. Lots of people seem to regard me as some sort of artist since I was named a living national treasure. But nothing could be farther from the truth. I’m a simple lacquer worker. Really, I’m just a down-to-earth craftsman. I don’t give much thought to making my work more efficient or profitable.”

(Continue to the next page for more detailed explanations of each photograph.)

  • [2012.02.10]

Specializes in crafts and traditional cuisine from around Japan. Books include 1972 seishun gunkanjima (Youth of 1972: Battleship Island) and Koke no uchū (Universe of Moss).


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