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Zoom Up / Time to protect the luster and color of Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Hanako Seino taps a lacquer tree under the guidance of Yoshio Izumiyama at Japanese lacquer fields in the mountains, which are surrounded by vivid-colored autumn leaves, toward the end of the lacquer tapping season in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, on Oct. 25. “I’d like to explore the possibility of lacquer with various people by moving away from the fixed idea of traditional culture,” she said.

By Daisuke Tomita / Yomiuri Shimbun PhotographerDue to changes in lifestyle and the appearance of inexpensive Chinese lacquer, the number of Japanese lacquer fields, and lacquer tappers who collect its sap, has drastically decreased.

In Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, the nation’s largest lacquer production area, the number of lacquer tappers has dropped to 26 from its peak of about 300. Likewise, there used to be 900,000 lacquer trees in the area, but the current number is about 150,000.

Last fiscal year, a system called urushi bito (lacquer people) was introduced to increase the number of tappers. The Ninohe city government plans to hire would-be tappers as part-time employees and provide technical training for up to three years.

“Even if it’s the same tree, the quality of lacquer can change depending on the depth of the cut and the timing of the tap. The only way to learn is through trial and error,” said Yoshio Izumiyama, 68, the leader of a local lacquer producers’ association. He was speaking to Hanako Seino, 43, one of the would-be tappers.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A tapper taps lacquer seeping out from a cut on the surface of a tree in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, on Oct. 25. Only about 200 grams of lacquer can be extracted from one tree.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A technician repairs the main hall of the Nikko Toshogu shrine with 100 percent Japanese lacquer in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, on Nov. 9. “Doing repairs with Japanese lacquer, which is better suited to Japan’s climate, makes it last a long time,” said Noritake Sato, 68, a lacquer work managing technician at the Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples. The association has started training for lacquer technicians from across the country since the last fiscal year.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Lacquer tappers and trainees from the Aizu area in Fukushima Prefecture observe nursery trees of Japanese lacquer in Hitachiomiya, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Oct. 31. It is said to take 10 to 15 years for the seedlings to be able to produce lacquer. How to manage Japanese lacquer trees will be the first step toward the revival of domestic lacquer.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Kazuyoshi Saito, 69, a craftsman at the Konobu metal workshop in Tokyo, tries to make a lacquer-tapping plane, which can cut trees, supported by the association of Ichikiro in Nishi-Tokyo, Tokyo, on Nov. 7. Along with lacquer tappers, there has also been a decline in the number of craftsmen making tapping tools. According to the association, there is only one craftsman in the nation who can make such a plane. Teaching materials are made for carrying on the technique of making tapping tools by recording their efforts.

Seino continued tapping lacquer after his instructions, nodding and smiling in a Japanese lacquer field in the mountains in the city. She moved from Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture, this June. Three other people are currently undergoing training.

Of the about 50 tons of lacquer that are consumed annually in Japan, only 1.2 tons were domestically produced in fiscal 2016.

In February 2015, the Cultural Affairs Agency came out with a policy to use domestically produced lacquer, in principle, to preserve and repair buildings designated as national treasures and important cultural properties. This measure is aimed at protecting domestically produced lacquer and passing on techniques for repair work.

Domestically produced lacquer is said to have a good luster and deteriorates very slowly.

About 2.2 tons of lacquer would be needed to achieve the goal of 100 percent use of domestic product next fiscal year.

However, “our production is not nearly sufficient,” a source in the lacquer production industry said.

Efforts are also being made to increase the number of lacquer tree fields. A Tokyo-based nonprofit organization called Ichikiro no kai (Association of Ichikiro) has been providing support for domestic lacquer for the past 20 years.

The organization has been expanding the number of the fields, for example, in Hitachiomiya, Ibaraki Prefecture, by introducing an ownership system. The organization is also cooperating with a producers’ association to promote seedling production and forestation.

Lacquer can be called “japan” in English. Is it possible to protect lacquer, which is essential for Japanese culture? The nation is at a major turning point.Speech

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