A Shining Experience: Japanese Lacquer Art
By Bic Tieu

The art of Japanese lacquer is an extraordinary technology that is exquisite and distinctive. What makes this craft so attractive is its lustrous metallic appearance and subtle sculptural surface design. It is these elements, which has captured my inquisitiveness to learn more about this art form. Lacquer is a natural resin collected from a species of trees indigenous to Asian regions which is exhaustively layered and sanded to produce a rich, highly lustrous finish. Under the many conditions of lacquer, it is 'makie' which has brought me to Japan. Makie was developed between the ninth and fourteenth century in Japan, reaching its peak with remarkable developments in the Edo period (1615-1867). Makie, is the Japanese technical name, which essentially describes gold lacquer referring to works of lacquer designs made from the sprinkling of gold and silver particles and powders.

The history of lacquer is extensive, spanning six thousand years across the Asian continent. The earliest examples of lacquer ware are of Chinese wooden bowls with both internal and external surfaces painted with red lacquer. This form of relics dates back six thousand years in China. Originally the uses of lacquer were for waterproofing and as a preservation function. Because of lacquer's ability to work as a binding agent this developed into a medium for painting and further for appliqué and inlay. Gradually the medium lent itself to greater artistic expression. Through trade and gifts the art and technology required for the manufacture of lacquer reached China's neighboring countries Korea, Japan, South East Asia and Okinawa. Most of the early examples of lacquer ware from these countries originate from China however with time these nations developed a style distinctly their own.

My background is in contemporary art jewellery and object design working primarily with metals. In my work I often explore historical floral theme in a modern interpretation. I create jewellery and objects as carriers of a history of ideas. My appreciation for jewellery comes from its associations with history, status, rituals, ceremonial, and body adornment. Jewellery, its forms, its material language and preciousness varies from culture to culture. However the one consistent characteristic that connects this is the 'shining' aspect. People have always had a precious association with things that shine and sparkle, and I share this experience when beholding lacquer. In many cultures beauty and preciousness are associated with metal and gems in the form of jewellery or hollow-ware. But for centuries in Japan, lacquer ware has been equally valuable.

This is especially seen with makie in two-dimensional decoration on lacquer ware boxes, suzuuribako (box for ink stone and writing utensils) and inros (portable medicine container). Prior to the 16th century, lacquer wares were affiliated only with the upper-class society, primarily with the aristocracy, elite religious and secular groups. During the Momoyama (1568-1614) and Edo (1615-1867) period, a new class of wealthy merchants emerged. Again, many lacquer ware creations were designed during this period to meet new demands. In Japan there is a strong tradition of lacquer. It is a highly valued process with a strong traditional heritage. There is a recorded history of Japanese lacquer working and it is a valued craft that has developed a specialised terminology. Much scholarly work and research has contributed to greater understanding of Japanese lacquer arts. Today, lacquer continues to be practiced by masters of the craft and has also evolved to new contemporary art interpretations. Although the traditional craft is not in everyday use, it still serves various purposes for the urban and rural population.

Back in 2009 and 2010 with the support from the Ian Potter Foundation, Asialink and private sponsorship, I took a Visual Arts Residency in Wajima, Japan, where the most masterful lacquer works are created in the region. I was there to research and extend my knowledge and hand skills to a professional artistic level in traditional Japanese lacquer (specifically makie) techniques. This journey began during my undergraduate studies. I wanted to reinterpret the lustrous quality of lacquer through surface ornamentation on metal and non-metal surfaces. This interest and research continued through to my master's project where I investigated the materiality and processes of Vietnamese lacquer applied to contemporary jewellery and objects. It was also around this time that I started to develop a deep appreciation for Japanese lacquer. In 2007, with an Australia Council New Work Grant I was able to undertake a short residency in Japan to learn some very basic and traditional metal and lacquer techniques. Realising that I wanted to develop my techniques in Japanese lacquer makie to a level of competence I returned to Wajima in 2009/2010. The 2009/2010 residency was made possible through a Hermanns Imports Scholarship Grant, Ian Potter Cultural Grant, Asialink and Private sponsorship.

This journey was both amazing and challenging. Wajima, its location, energy and traditions have given me an unforgettable cultural and learning experience. The study of Japanese lacquer is fascinating as it is a highly developed art form in Japan. The medium is not easy to work and involves a lot of time, effort and expense. However, the end result is very rewarding. When looking at a work of fine traditional Japanese lacquer art, the detail in the pictorial decoration in a beautiful gloss is truly wonderful to view. This is a quote from Melvin and Betty Jahss, which summarises what I feel Japanese lacquer art to be:

"Lacquer represents the acme of artistry – aesthetic and decorative design in a colourful graphic form while craftsmanship is expressed through the use of an extremely difficult medium in which to work."

I hope to continue this tradition with new expressions in my practice of contemporary jewellery and object making in Australia.


Bedford, J., 1969, Chinese and Japanese Lacquer, Walker and Company, New York.

Jahss, B. & Jahss. M. H., 1971, Inro and Other Miniature Forms of Japanese Lacquer Art, Charles. E. Tuttle Company, Japan.

Knight, M., 1992, East Asian Lacquers in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Hong Kong.

Lee, Y., 1972, Oriental Lacquer Art, Weatherhill, New York and Tokyo.

Watt, J. C. Y & Ford, B., 1991, East Asian Lacquer The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Webb, M., 2000, Lacquer: Technology and Conservation: a Comprehensive Guide to the Technology and Conservation of Asian and European Lacquer, Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston.

This website introduces Wajima through the eyes of a foreigner. 
We will introduce aspects of Wajima life and culture, such as the following facts.
Aka-Sawa © 2010