Japan Volunteers Help Preserve Wajima Lacquerware by Finding New Owners; Project Leaders Hope to Pass on Treasures to Next Generation

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Benjamin Flatt sorts through cleaned Wajima lacquerware items in Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, in May.

WAJIMA, Ishikawa — A project to find new owners for recovered Wajima lacquerware, which otherwise might have been discarded, is underway in areas affected by the Jan. 1 Noto Peninsula Earthquake.

A volunteer organization in Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, holds onto recovered Wajima lacquerware items, looks for people who would use and treasure them, and then gives those people the lacquerware for free. The group has received more than 600 single-person tableware sets, which include bowls and tray tables, and has found new homes for some of them.

The project was started by Benjamin Flatt, 58, an Australian who has been running an inn in Noto for 27 years, and his wife Chikako Funashita, 54, who is from Noto. They hope to preserve Wajima lacquerware, as it represents the traditions and culture of the area and is filled with the feelings of the people.

“I can’t throw them away, but I don’t have plans to use them either,” said a nursery school teacher.

She took out a wooden box containing about 80 Wajima lacquerware tableware sets from a shed at her house in the Ushitsu area of Noto earlier this month. As the house is significantly damaged, it is set to be demolished soon.

While staying with a relative, she was worried about the Wajima lacquerware, which had been used during numerous ceremonial occasions over the years, stored at her house.

Flatt’s inn, which was also where he and his wife lived, suffered damage to its roof, and the land had sunk. As a result, they were not able to reopen.

However, they wanted to help people affected by the disaster. So, in February, they established the Noto earthquake regional reconstruction support.

While they helped run soup kitchens and did other volunteer work, they were shocked to find out that Wajima lacquerware recovered from collapsed houses was being discarded because people did not know what to do with it.

At their inn, Flatt and Funashita had served meals on Wajima lacquerware that conveyed the craftsmanship and mastery of the artisans. As they felt a connection to the lacquerware, they wanted to preserve the items being recovered when houses and buildings were cleared. After getting permission from the previous owners, the couple started planning the project.

Their project covers four municipalities in the Okunoto area — Suzu, Wajima, Noto and Anamizu — where more than 51,000 buildings were damaged. So far, the group has received Wajima lacquerware items recovered from about 30 buildings and stored the items in a warehouse.

Dozens of single-person tableware sets are sometimes found at once, and the items are carefully cleaned. About 10 sets, among other items, have been given to three people in Tokyo.

The group asks those interested in receiving the items to visit the disaster-hit areas. Once there, prospective owners are interviewed by the organization, which asks them why they want to support these areas. The group then determines whether the people can be trusted with something so valuable.

“I treasure them, as they keep me connected to Noto,” said a 39-year-old midwife who received such Wajima lacquerware in April.

The group plans to offer its Wajima lacquerware collection to people in the restaurant industry in the future. The couple says they cannot easily discard the lacquerware, as it has been handed down for generations, and they hope to pass it on to future generations.