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The ultimate art that elevates craftwork

In the late Edo Period, there was a Japanese urushi lacquerware engraver who developed an
innovative decoration technique unlike anything seen in the urushi lacquerware world up until then.
His name was Tamakaji Zokoku.
Urushi lacquerware uses the three techniques of kinma, zonsei, and choshitsu to create richly
evocative, yet refined lacquerware that is truly the ultimate art that elevates craftwork.
Zokoku created a new and unrestrained form of urushi lacquerware expression. The rich tradition of
Kagawa urushi lacquerware has produced six Living National Treasures.

Tamakaji Zokoku

Tamakaji Zokoku
Writing-paper and writing box, kinma on coloring lacquer
An innovator who changed the course of urushi lacquerware history in pursuit of new and unrestrained methods of expression.

Tamakaji Zokoku was born in Takamatsu City, Kagawa, and had seen lacquerware works from countries such as China, Thailand, and Myanmar in the collections of Higashi-honganji Temple and Daitokuji Temple, among others, which stimulated his desire to create. Later, he returned to Takamatsu with knowledge of lacquerware techniques from various countries. His talent was recognized by Matsudaira Yorihiro (ninth lord of the Takamatsu Domain), and he was appointed to manage and supervise the items in the domain's treasury. He carefully observed all of these items to further develop his own skills. His studies soon paid off, and he established a distinctive Tamakaji style of urushi lacquerware techniques based on pre-existing traditional techniques. He developed a distinctive Japanese style of lacquerware after assimilating the makie lacquerware techniques of China and Southeast Asia, which were mainstream at the time. Today, these techniques which were developed in Kagawa are known as the "Three Kagawa Lacquerware Techniques", and consist of kinma, zonsei, and choshitsu.

Three Kagawa Lacquerware Techniques

Outstanding techniques which diverge from traditional schools and were developed in pursuit of new and more unrestrained methods of expression.

During the Edo Period, luxurious makie lacquerware using gold and silver powder were mainstream.
Tamakaji Zokoku did not imitate this makie lacquerware,
but instead sought to discover a new lacquerware art, and in doing so, create his own new techniques.
Unlike makie lacquerware, there are no distinct schools, so these new techniques were less restricted and
incorporated new ideas into new fields.
Tamakaji Zokoku's pursuit of new lacquerware art styles can be likened to the spirit of a modern
entrepreneur trying to create an entirely new industry.

Isoi Joshin
Dry Japanese sweets tray, ‘Crane and Tortoise, Pine and Bamboo and Ume’

In this technique, lacquer is applied to a vessel more than a dozen times, and then patterns are carved using a kinma-ken (kinma knife or scraper).
Then, colored lacquer is inlaid to fill the carved grooves and the surface is polished flat and smooth, making this technique perfect for freely creating desired patterns. This technique came from Thailand and Myanmar, and then via China to Japan during the Muromachi Period.

So far, five people have been named Important Cultural Property Holders (Living National Treasures) in this technique.

Kagawa Soseki
Paperboard box, with flower and butterfly design, zonsei, Sanuki lacquer

In this technique, colored lacquer is used to paint patterns onto vessels covered with multiple coats of lacquer.
Then a ken (knife or scraper) is used to carve outlines and details.
Tamakaji Zokoku created zonsei works using this technique.
These days, the carved grooves are filled with gold and silver powder to make the designs stand out more.

Otomaru Kodo
Incense case with hydrangea design, choshitsu

In this technique, different colored lacquers are applied from several dozen to several hundred times to create layers, (100 applications will create a layer approximately 3mm thick). Then, these layers are carved into, creating engraved designs in relief. This technique produces a sense of depth and three dimensionality, and the contrast of colors created by carving into the layers at different depths results in a unique beauty.
This technique came to Japan from China during the Muromachi Period, and the skilled engraver Tamakaji Zokoku used this choshitsu technique to create his own original works.
Items made by layering only shu-urushi (vermillion lacquer) are called tsuishu, and items made using only kuro-urushi (black lacquer) are called tsuikoku.
Advancements in pigments has currently made it possible for a wide variety of different colors to be used.

There is also an individual who has been named an Important Intangible Cultural Property Holder (Living National Treasure) in the choshitsu technique.

Kagawa Urushi Lacquerware Institute

The first ever training facility in Japan which works to pass on Zokoku's spirit to future generations of lacquerware artists.

The Kagawa Urushi Lacquerware Institute was established in November 1954 as Japan’s first facility aimed at
preserving Kagawa Prefecture’s traditional lacquerware, including kinma, zonsei, and choshitsu, cultivating
successors for these arts, and seeking to improve related skills and techniques.
At present, there are over 450 graduates (research students) of the Kagawa Urushi Lacquerware Institute who, as
lacquerware artists and experts, now contribute to the promotion of Kagawa’s traditional lacquerware arts and
traditional industries.
In 2013, instructor Yamashita Yoshito (graduate of the 15th class) was named an Important Intangible Cultural
Property Holder (Living National Treasure) for the kinma style.