Lacquerware and Glass

This new Uchina series is an introduction to Okinawa's culture and history from a uniqueviewpoint. Our previous issue focused on the gusuku castles which will be registered as World Heritage Sitesin this future. In this new issue, we will bringyou the aura and contours seen in the pottery and textiles that Okinawa has nurtured within its history and environment. We hope you will enjoy the unique tint and famm these crafts display.
First Series: Textiles on Okinawa Island
Second Series: Textiles on Surrounding Islands
Third Series: Okinawan Pottery
Fourth Series: Ryukyu Lacquerware and Glass

The techniques for using the sap of the lacquer tree and processing it for use in lacquerware arts developed in Japan, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Aof these countries the lacquer of were is renowned. Dried lacquerware has great adhesive strength, is rot and water resistant, and can be used with many types of base materials such as wood, bamboo and paper.


The origin of lacquer in Okinawa is unclear, but records indicate Chinese Ming emperor Senso dispatched envoys to the Ryukyus to buy raw lacquer in 1427. It is also known that in the 15th century persons related to the royal household used vermilion lacquer on their coffins with gold comma shaped decoration. Later on, the Ryukyuan royal government put efforts into the production of lacquerware products for use as presents and trade items for the Chinese emperor and as tribute items for the Japanese shogun and the various feucal lords of Japan. A magistraterial office called the kaizuri bugyo (office of shell polishing) was established to manage production and the lacquerware artisans. In the magistrate workshops work was done with great care, and the production of some pieces might have taken a number of years to complete. The term Kaizuri (shell polishing) refers to the mother-of-pearl inlay technique called raden. Production consists of cutting out a design in thinly polished turban or abalone shell and applying it as inlay on the lacquer, a technique highly valued in the time.
Other typical techniques used in Ryukyuan lacquer include chinkin gilt line engraving and tsuikin applique.
 rlacquerware paper-including box with mother-of-pearl inlay
rlacquerware paper-including box
with mother-of-pearl inlay


This technique involves carving designs on the surface of the lacquer piece, which then has gold leaf applied into the design.
The beauty of vermilion lacquerware pieces with chinkin gilt line engraving are rightly praised, along with raden mother-of pearl inlay, as one of the flowers of Ryukyuan dynastic culture.
 chinkin engeve lacquer tea caddies
chinkin engeve lacquer tea caddies


The tsuikin method of applique is unique to Okinawa but was inspired by the Chinese lacquer technique called tsuishu in japanese. Lacquer is mixed with pigments and rolled out into a thin sheet. The sheet is then cut with a small knife and the decoration is applied to the main lacquerware piece. Because it is solidly made and can be produced in large quanfities,tsuikin is currently the most popular technique in Okinawan lacquerware.
 tsuikin applique lacquerware lidded thay for holding lacwuer and ceramic plates
tsuikin applique lacquerware lidded thay for holding lacwuer and ceramic plates


The distinctive features of Ryukyuan lacquer are said to be its vermilion color as well as the tsuikin applique and raden inlay techniques, but all of these qualities are intimately related to the climatic conditions in Okinawa.

Suitable drying conditions for lacquer are a humidity level of 80% and a temperature above 20 degrees Centigrade. Okinawa has ideal natural conditions for lacquer production. The strong ultraviolet rays of the sun bring out the vividness of the vermilion red pigments. Since the late 19th century pig's blood has at times been used as primer and was said to be the reason for the deep vermilion color achieved, but it is now believed the primer base has very little to do with the vivid colors of the finished lacquer.

The techniques of tsuikin also use the advantageous natural conditions here and it is said that tsuikin techniques probably would not have been developed elsewhere. In the case of the raden technique, the shell used for inlay does not require a glue for attachment to the lacquer so considerable delicate craftsmanship is possible. At present, excellent quality Ryukyu lacquer items can be seen in the Lacquerware Hall of Urasoe Art Museum, inside Shuri Castle,in the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and in many other fine shops in Okinawa.

The history of Ryukyu Glass is much shorter than other traditional arts and crafts in Okinawa, dating back only to the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Up until WWII the production consisted largely of daily items such as lamp chimneys and medicine bottles. As one of the traditional arts, it was not until the postwar era that it came into the limelight. The large quantity of soft drink bottles brought in by the U.S. forces on Okinawa were cut and reused as cups by the locals. Finally, they began to be used for glassblowing and many utilitarian items came into production. The old empty bottles brought by the American servicemen were turned into glass products with impurities and bubbles left in the material. It was the Americans, who first recognized the allure of such handmade glass products.
Lampshade - Okinawa
vase - Okinawa
large glass dish incorporating many smal air bubbles - Okinawa
large glass dish incorporating many smal air bubbles
After okinawa was returned to Japan, Ryukyu glass gained popularity as souvenirs for tourists and has become fixed as a familiar traditional craft in daily life. Recently, in addition to using empty soft drink bottles, regular glass making materials are being added and items more refined, both technically and design-wise.