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.
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.