Kaga Craftsmen Join Forces to Produce a New Series of Traditional Lacquerware

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Craftsman Shuji Nakamura applies lacquer to the new “Mononogu” series products at a workshop in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture.

KAGA, Ishikawa — An association of businesses for Yamanaka lacquerware, a traditional handicraft in the city of Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture, has jointly developed a new series of the decorative craft.

Changing lifestyles have made it difficult for such businesses to expect large-scale demand such as for wedding gifts. To cope with the situation, craftsman from various workshops put aside their competitive juices and pooled their skill sets together to create a brand for everyday items.

Woodworkers and wood-carvers in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (late 16th century) are said to have been the ones who started making Yamanaka lacquerware.

It is characterized by its sturdiness and resistance to warping because of the drying process. While Wajima lacquerware in Ishikawa Prefecture is called “Wajima for lacquering,” Yamanaka’s wares are known as “Yamanaka for woodwork.”

At a workshop in the Yamanaka Onsen hot spring district in Kaga, craftsman Shuji Nakamura, 44, was spinning a potter’s wheel as he applied lacquer to a series of products. He repeats the steps on 400 pieces a day to dry them. The entire process involves 20 to 30 steps and takes six to nine months to complete.

Nakayama was working on products called “Mononogu,” a new series of lacquerware launched by the district’s associated cooperative, which features 249 Yamanaka lacquerware-related businesses.

The cooperative began drawing up a blueprint five years ago and gathered highly skilled craftsmen from area workshops for individual processes.

The craftsmen spent six months developing a “color that is neither black nor red” that would replace those two traditional colors and make the grain of the wood look even more attractive. Wood craftsmen designed a shape to make the lacquerware fit comfortably in the hand.

According to the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries in Tokyo, it is rare for a large production center like the one for Yamanaka lacquerware to cooperate in the creation of a single product.

Behind this move is a sense of crisis among the manufacturers. From the 1980s to the mid-90s, when Yamanaka lacquerware was a standard wedding gift, its annual production was valued at more than ¥30 billion, peaking at ¥40 billion in 1988. Since 2010, however, production has declined to around ¥10 billion. It dipped to the ¥5 billion level during the coronavirus pandemic.

Prices for the new series start at ¥8,800, including tax, to enable younger buyers to afford them as gifts. On the other hand, sales channels are limited to direct online sales and department stores to prevent a price collapse.

The cooperative also plans to try to appeal to overseas customers, providing product descriptions in English on the packaging.

It has also started selling what it touts as “modern lacquerware,” made of resin using environmentally friendly paints.

“Branding is essential for taking on new markets and attracting successors. We’d like to make our products something like the Imabari towel, which has taken hold as a product used in daily life,” said Shunsuke Takenaka, president of the cooperative.