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12 Materials in Japanese Art

Works in the Royal Collection incorporate some of the finest materials cultivated by Japanese artists. Long prized in Japan, these precious substances proved an immediate source of fascination when they arrived on British shores and were quickly sought-after and imitated.

The secrets of some materials – such as porcelain and lacquer – would not be known in Europe for many years, making them particularly desirable. Other, more familiar materials such as silver, ink and enamel were transformed and made newly appealing by intricate Japanese techniques,

The Imperial Household has long honoured outstanding craftspeople working in a particular medium as official artists (Teishitsu Gigei’in) or suppliers. Their work has been selected for diplomatic gifts between the Courts of Japan and Britain. Today the Royal Collection includes pieces by leading artists such as Andō Jūbei, Akatsuka Jitoku and Namikawa Sōsuke.

Master practitioners may be designated by the Imperial Government as a ‘Holder of Important Intangible Cultural Properties’ (commonly known as a ‘Living National Treasure’). Among them is the potter Hamada Shōji, whose work was presented to The Queen in 1975.

Porcelain

Master: Five dishes

Five dishes | RCIN 58821 ©

Ceramics have been produced in Japan since the beginning of the Jōmon period (c.10,500 BC). However, the secret of porcelain was not known until the early seventeenth century. Prized for its hardness, whiteness and translucency, porcelain manufacture was finally learned from Korean potters captured by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Stone was crushed using water-powered hammers and then refined to produce the clay, before being either press-moulded or thrown on a kick-wheel. Designs might then be painted onto the unfired body using blue cobalt oxide from China. A clear glaze made from wood ash and clay was subsequently added by dipping or pouring. The vessels were fired in long, interconnected kilns (noborigama) built into the hillside, at temperatures of up to 1400 degrees Celsius.

From the 1640s, potters developed a dazzling white glaze known as nigoshide, offset by asymmetrical designs in bright enamel. The pieces were highly prized in Europe for their harmonious colours.

Lacquer

Rectangular box, the inset rim fitted with a silver band, the shallow cover similarly fitted, flat-topped and rounded towards the edge.The large gold chrysanthemum crest (kikumon) on the cover of this box identifies it as an imperial gift. Although unsi

Imperial presentation box and cover | RCIN 29465 ©

Lacquer is a costly varnish made from the sap of the Toxicodendron vernicifluum tree. Since the Early Jōmon period (c.4000–3000 BC), it has been prized in Japan for its resistance to water, heat and woodworm as well as mild acids and alkalis. This viscous substance is known as urushi (lacquer), which can be coloured a range of shades (traditionally black, red, brown, green and yellow) or embellished while wet with metal powders or inlay. It has long been used as a durable and attractive finish for temple architecture and luxury household goods such as saké bottles, document boxes, bowls, trays and cabinets.

The most distinctive Japanese lacquer decorative technique is makie (literally ‘sprinkled picture’), in which metallic powders are scattered onto wet lacquer to create a variety of designs.

Silk

Embroidered folding screen | RCIN 79563 ©

This vivid mountain scene is not painted but rather embroidered in silk. A combination of traditional stitches, including long and short stitch (sashi-nui), make the foaming water seem to tumble out of the frame. Cotton wadding behind the rocks and trees creates a relief effect.

The Japanese imperial family acquired silk folding screens of this kind from the Kyoto firms of Nishimura, Iida and Kawashima from the 1880s, both to furnish the new Imperial Palace in Tokyo, completed in 1889, and to present as diplomatic gifts to foreign rulers.

Mother-of-pearl

Chest | RCIN 39244 ©

Glittering chests like these were among the first Japanese goods exported to Europe in the sixteenth century. Almost the entire surface is inlaid with thick pieces of mother of pearl. This style was known in Japan as nanban (or ‘southern barbarian’) for its appeal to western buyers who reached the islands from the south.

The shell was also a popular embellishment for spears and polearms carried by a feudal lord’s entourage when processing to the capital, Edo (now Tokyo) to pay homage to the shōgun. Royal Collection Trust conservators painstakingly reapplied mother-of-pearl fragments to a yari (spear) in preparation for the exhibition.

Gold

RCIN 64476

Writing box (detail) | RCIN 64476 ©

The gold flakes on this Japanese box create an effect called ‘pear-skin ground’ (nashiji), named for its resemblance to the Asian pear (nashi). Particles of precise size and shape are hand-selected and then carefully sprinkled onto wet lacquer from a tube fitted with a cloth mesh. The process requires remarkable precision and dexterity. Here, the gold powder forms a backdrop for a flock of swooping plovers, also rendered in gold.

Enamel

Octagonal bowl on a stand | RCIN 41530 ©

The Japanese word for enamelling is shippō, or ‘seven precious stones’, because the colours achieved are so jewel-like. Here, the material forms a playful design of rabbits and phoenixes. The enamel has been built up around a copper base and then dissolved with acid, leaving a delicate series of semi-transparent panels. The effect achieved is akin to a stained-glass window, as light floods through the bowl. 

Iron

RCIN 71611

Armour (dōmaru) | RCIN 71611 ©

This extraordinary Japanese armour is constructed from hundreds of small pieces of iron. Each part has been covered with lacquer (varnish) and then laced together with vibrant silk. Together, they form a flexible covering which wraps around the upper body, a technique known as hon-kozane. The result is highly protective but retains ease of movement. Solid sections of iron above are decorated with dragons chasing the Buddhist pearl of enlightenment.

Silver

RCIN 7797

Vase adapted as a lamp (detail) | RCIN 7797 ©

Silver flowers on this Japanese vase have been deliberately patinated to alter their appearance. First, the metal is carefully polished with a series of increasingly fine powders. Solutions containing plum vinegar, sake or green tea are then applied and react with the surface of the metal to produce different colours. The peony here is a delicate grey hue, hinting at the plant’s fragility and indicating its change across the seasons.

Paper and Ink

Carnations in a ginger jar | RCIN 502218 ©

Paper and ink have been used in Japan for centuries to create colourful woodblock prints called ukiyo-e, or ‘pictures of a floating world’. They depict folk tales, fashionable courtesans and dramatic landscapes, as well as plant and flower scenes.

Each image begins with a design carved on a wooden block and printed onto washi, strong and absorbent handmade paper often made from mulberry tree fibre. A series of further printings are then made onto the same sheet, using separate woodblocks, each coated with a different ink colour.

This image of carnations was printed using five successive impressions. The artist has meticulously aligned each block before printing to ensure the layers of ink overlap perfectly – a process known as ‘registration’.

Bronze

Bronze vase (detail) | RCIN 7798 ©

Bronze work in Japan was traditionally focused on creating works for Buddhist ritual, wares for tea gatherings and elements of arms and armour. With the suppression of the samurai and the ban on wearing swords in 1876, many metalworkers turned their skills to the creation of decorative objects, particularly for the export market.

The casting of bronze was achieved using the lost-wax method: an object would be created from a core material and covered in wax, the outer surface of which would then be modelled and coated in clay. The whole was then heated so that the wax melted away, creating a hollow into which the molten metal was poured.

These bronze vases are cast in intricate relief, creating a dynamic sense of movement. Tiny details in the dramatic scene such as the pinecones and garments have been highlighted with thin pieces of gold and silver wire. This technique is called zōgan or inlay, with small sections of contrasting metal used to build up a pictorial design.

Rayskin

RCIN 62628

Court-style sword (kazaridachi) and scabbard | RCIN 62628 ©

The glossy, pearl-like surface of this Japanese sword hilt is ray skin. Its bumpy, water-resistant texture aided a samurai’s grip. Braided silk cord was often also wrapped tightly round the skin to protect the hilt.

This ceremonial court sword would not have been used in combat and so the exceptional-quality ray skin has been left visible as a decorative feature. Choice elements include the large bump from near the ray’s spine, known as the ‘emperor node’.

Shakudo

Sword and scabbard | RCIN 62623 ©

Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98) once compared the colour of shakudō to ‘raindrops on a crow’s wing’. The rich purple-black hue is made by combining copper and small amounts of gold, which are carefully patinated (discoloured).

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, shakudō was desirable but expensive, so a style of metalwork known as sawasa was produced for the Dutch East India Company in and around Nagasaki. Objects made from a copper alloy were given gilt relief decoration with black lacquered highlights to achieve the appearance of shakudō, but at a much cheaper price.