The manufacturing of Japanese urushi lacquer has always followed every aspect of the Japanese artistic handicraft. Water and heat resistant, it has been used indeed not only as upholstery for every kind of domestic utensil, but also for armors (yoroi), swords scabbards (katana), and so on.
As the process of hardening is very slow, as much as perfectly stable, the original Japanese lacquer later proved itself as an excellent support for every kind of decoration, from inserts of other materials to the most detailed illustrations made with gold powder, named maki-e. The artistic languages that developed for the production of lacquer over the centuries are an expression of the social and political life of Japan: we go from the sobriety of Buddhist works to the powerful asymmetry of the battles period, to the showed-off luxury of the centuries of peace.
Therefore, the original ancient Japanese lacquers include an enormous assortment of typologies of works, variable according also to the different ages:
- During the Muromachi period (1336-1573) the production of lacquer objects was related to the life in Buddhist temples; in particular, there was a development of Negoro red and black lacquer.
- Starting from the Momoyama period (1573-1615), the taste for golden maki-e decorations took over, and a great many types of lacquer objects began to be produced (typically, lacquer boxes of all sizes).
- The Edo period (1615-1867) is the one that saw the fashion for the Japanese lacquers take over, and most of the collections of original ancient Japanese lacquers nowadays are made up of works from this era. Trousseaus, writing boxes (suzuribako) and, above all, inro (small tied boxes) are among the most popular types in this period.
- In the Meiji period (1868-1912), the production of Japanese lacquer moved towards the European market too, and abandoned the typical opulence of the ancient lacquers. The major exponent of this era was Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891).