Japanese 1952–<br/>
<em>Chrysanthemum kai-oke shell boxes and kai-awase shells</em> (installation)<br/>
<em>(Kiku maki-e kai-oke to kai-awase)</em><br/>
lacquer on wood (<em>maki-e, chinkin</em>), gold, silver, silk, shell, gilt,<br/>
colour pigment<br/>
Collection of Dr Pauline Gandel, Melbourne<br/>

A golden opportunity


Reviving the lost art of kai-awase and kai-oke production

Until the completion of the kai-awase (shell-matching) game and kai-oke (large lacquer boxes used to store the shells) exhibited in the NGV’s Pauline Gandel Gallery of Japanese Art in 2021, a historically accurate version of this ancient Japanese game had not been produced since the latter half of the nineteenth century, when Japan ended its policy of seclusion and became a modern nation. This is the first overseas exhibition to display a complete set of kai-awase and kai-oke, which are rarely seen even in Japan.

The set was created between 2013 and 2015 by forty-six artisans who worked on the production of both the shells and the boxes in the town of Wajima, on the Noto Peninsula. It comprises 720 clam shells (360 pairs) decorated with gold leaf and painted with floral motifs, and two kai-oke decorated in black and gold maki-e 1Maki-e is a highly decorative style of lacquerware produced by sprinkling gold and other decorative powders and flakes on a lacquer base. The term means ‘sprinkled picture’. lacquerwork depicting chrysanthemums in full bloom. The underside of the kai-oke lids and the upper surface of their stands feature scattered kai-awase shell designs in relief using the taka-maki-e (relief lacquer) technique.

This elaborate work was created by artisans who take immense pride in their skills, which are keeping alive traditional Japanese crafts once thought obsolete. Their extraordinary workmanship can be seen in every aspect of the kai-awase and kai-oke, including the attached metal fittings and decorative silk cords that secure the lids. The finished work is nostalgic and graceful, and embodies the elegant sense of aesthetics cultivated by Japanese culture for over 1000 years.
Japanese 1952&ndash;<br/>
<em>Kai-oke shell box lid</em><br/>
<em>(Maki-e kai-oke futa)</em><br/>
lacquer on wood (<em>maki-e, chinkin</em>)<br/>
Collection of Dr Pauline Gandel, Melbourne<br/>

In this essay, I have focused on the production of the work and the struggles faced by the artisans while also offering a brief explanation of urushi (Japanese lacquer), and maki-e techniques. The most remarkable thing about this project is that not only did it result in the two lacquer boxes and 720 painted shells, but it also revived advanced lacquer production techniques that had become obsolete and which can only be achieved through collaborative production and the division of labour. Usually, artworks speak for themselves; the circumstances of their creation, whatever they may be, have no relevance to their value. While I acknowledge this, the reason I have included an explanation of the production process is because the finished work was dependent on teamwork and the employment of specialist artisans from a variety of fields. It is true, not only in maki-e lacquerware but also in many contemporary creative pursuits, that respect for values such as individuality, creativity and the artist’s originality is present. Historically, however, the production of furnishings was never in the hands of a single maker. If it had been, it would not have been possible to complete work like the kai-awase set seen in this exhibition and book. The conflicts, competition and cooperation between the makers while creating the work became valuable lessons in understanding the group approach to production that was once the norm in Japan – the many complications experienced by the workers informed their final results. There was also a keen awareness among the team that the collaborative nature of the project was an opportunity to train young craftspeople and ignite a resurgence in today’s declining Japanese lacquer industry. The project was driven by an urge to revitalise both the beauty of Japanese lacquer and the production systems of old that created it.

An indispensable tool for any collaborative production is the presence of a leader to supervise group members, in this case one whose highly refined abilities in lacquerware production differ from those of today’s artists. This responsibility was given to Unryuan Kitamura Tatsuo, a master lacquer maker from Wajima, and it is only due to him that this project was successfully completed.

It is also important to acknowledge that the work was made a reality thanks to the kind and enthusiastic support of Pauline Gandel, a Melbourne-based connoisseur and collector of Japanese art, and her husband, John. Pauline has a deep knowledge of Japanese culture, especially lacquerwork, and generously offered her support. Together, Pauline and John oversaw the production of the shell-matching game at every stage, and Pauline’s enduring energy and enthusiasm encouraged the workers to achieve what was once only a dream.

Lacquer and lacquer crafts

Toxicodendron vernicifluum is a plant native to east Asia whose resin has been used for various purposes since ancient times. Although there are differences depending on the country and region, the method of harvesting is basically the same: a scratch is made in the tree’s trunk and the resin is scraped out. As the resin dries it displays strong adhesive properties and can be used to make a glossy coating useful for waterproofing or preventing rust. Production methods were refined over time to develop the resin as a raw material known in Japan as urushi, or lacquer.

Lacquer does not dry in the same way as wet clothing; rather, it stiffens and hardens. Moisture does not evaporate away from it, either – the resin solidifies due to oxidation of enzymes, hardening from the inside due to a significant chemical reaction produced when the resin is combined with oxygen in the air. Once hardened, it is a highly durable substance so strong that not even aqua regia – a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid that can dissolve even gold – can affect it. On the other hand, it has the disadvantage of being vulnerable to ultraviolet rays, meaning lacquer-coated surfaces deteriorate over time if not well looked after. Furthermore, it can be dangerous to handle. In some cases, contact between the skin and unhardened lacquer can cause an extreme allergic reaction and result in a rash. The wisdom and efforts of those who have cultivated this problematic natural material into a useful substance, however, have expanded its range of effective indispensable material for daily life, used in everything from the plastic arts to military materials: various samurai sword sheaths and fittings, armour and other military equipment were coated with lacquer and usually decorated with maki-e work. Additionally, the household furnishings of noble and samurai families were mainly lacquer products, again featuring gorgeous maki-e decoration.

The maki-e technique makes very effective use of the adhesive properties of lacquer. If gold or silver powder is sprinkled over a lacquer-coated surface, or gold leaf and pieces of shell or precious metals are applied before it dries and the lacquer hardens thoroughly, these decorative materials are fastened hard to the lacquer surface. This simple technique developed in earnest from the eighth century, with various maki-e styles becoming a uniquely Japanese expression of a decorative craft known throughout the world. The kai-oke created for this shell-matching game, with its maki-e chrysanthemum design, is embedded in this tradition. The various techniques used follow examples from lacquer’s most prosperous period, around the eighteenth century. For example, raised maki-e is created by sprinkling finely ground charcoal powder over coats of lacquer, applying lacquer again over the neatened form, then sprinkling gold over the top. Known as taka-maki-e, this advanced technique was, until about 100 years ago, a hallmark of premium lacquerwork. These days, both the demand for it and the number of people who can claim mastery of it are dwindling.

From the sixteenth century, luxurious, highly decorative Japanese lacquerware coloured with gold, silver and mother-of-pearl became popular overseas. As urushi is a material only available in east Asia, in Western Europe, black lacquer paint finishes mimicking urushi, along with motifs imitating Japanese lacquerwork designs, began emerging on Western furniture. Such imitation lacquer techniques came to be known as ‘japanning’. Japan’s policy of seclusion from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries no doubt created even greater interest and an air of mystery, and the passion for Japanese lacquerware in many countries led to maki-e works, including inro, netsuke 2Inro (‘name seal basket’) are small containers, often compartmentalised boxes, attached by a cord and a netsuke (toggle) to the waist sash of a male kimono. Beautifully decorated inro and intricately carved netsuke were essential accessories for fashionable men during the Edo period. and other lacquer items, being collected widely outside of Japan. The demise of the samurai classes that accompanied the opening of Japan during the second half of the nineteenth century sparked an upheaval in which everything from the past was abandoned, bringing about the end of the unique society that had existed until that time. As a result, excellent examples of lacquer inro and netsuke, and other unique items like ukiyo-e woodblock prints, were collected in Europe, the United States and Australia where research was, and continues to be, more active than within Japan. Kitamura agrees, saying to me during production of the kai-oke: ‘American and European collectors and researchers think that there are still a lot of inro masters in Japan, even today’. In reality, there is currently no one apart from Kitamura himself who can create inro of the quality achieved prior to the nineteenth century. Despite this, the US, Europe and Australia continue their admiration of lacquerware and maki-e. Japan must continue to share the appeal of this refined art with the world; the production of this kai-awase set puts this understanding into practice.

Wajima, the centre of lacquerware production

Wajima, where the production of the kai-oke took place, is a port town on the northern coast of the Noto Peninsula, in Ishikawa Prefecture. Despite having a relatively small population of about 24,000, this town has a long history and reputation for being the largest lacquerware-producing region in Japan. Lacquerware production in Wajima dates back to the fifteenth century, but the lineage of Wajima-nuri (Wajima lacquer) that continues to the present day seems to have been established during the sixteenth century. From the latter half of the eighteenth century, the mass production of tableware, trays and bowls gained momentum, and Wajima flourished as a result of the nationwide sale of high-quality, sturdy lacquerware products. Even today, this production model continues, but rapid changes in the Japanese lifestyle and environment since the latter half of the twentieth century have proven unfavourable for the industry and significantly reduced demand for lacquerware. As the largest production centre, Wajima is no exception. Nevertheless, due to the significant accumulation of Japanese lacquer techniques in Wajima, the Ishikawa Prefectural Institute of Wajima Lacquer Arts, a training institution for preserving and developing traditional lacquer skills, has been established. Young people who appreciate lacquer’s beauty and aspire to become artisans in the craft gather here from all over Japan and across the globe. Wajima is also home to the Wajima Museum of Urushi Art, the only museum in the world specialising in lacquer craft.
Japanese 1952&ndash;<br/>
<em>Chrysanthemum kai-oke shell boxes and kai-awase shells</em><br/>
<em>(Kiku maki-e kai-oke to kai-awase)</em><br/>
lacquer on wood (<em>maki-e, chinkin</em>), gold, silver, silk, shell, gilt,<br/>
colour pigment<br/>
58.0 &times; 58.0 &times; 65.0 cm (each) <br/>
Collection of Dr Pauline Gandel, Melbourne<br/>

Kitamura hails from Wajima; of the forty-six project members, each possessing specific skills and knowledge, about thirty were born in Wajima or live there. Several are graduates of the Ishikawa Prefectural Institute of Wajima Lacquer Arts. The three young Nihonga 3Literally meaning ‘Japanese picture’, Nihonga refers to the traditional style of Japanese painting used on screens, scrolls, paper and wooden panels, with black ink and ground pigment bound with gum arabic or animal glue. artists who painted the shells are from Kyoto but participated in the monthly production research meetings held in Wajima. The kumihimo (traditional decorative cord) placed around the kai-oke was also created in Kyoto by two professional cord makers. A married couple, they lectured at successive study groups in Wajima and gave practical training on the characteristics and tying methods of the cord, which is an integral component in the final presentation of the kai-oke.

Kai-oke and kai-awase

There are few people, even in Japan, who know what kai-oke are. Although on occasion there may be opportunities to view them in museums as works of classical lacquer art, unlike stationery or cosmetic sets they are far removed from our contemporary lifestyle and therefore do not feel familiar. But while unsure of the exact use and history of kai-oke, most people would get the impression from the Japanese written characters that they are a container for storing shells (kai 貝 = shell; oke 桶 = tub). As the world of elegant noble pastimes flourished, kai-oke inevitably evolved into gorgeous lacquer furnishings. In marriage ceremonies between samurai and noble families, kai-oke containing decorated clam shells came to be treated as a symbol of familial alliance through marriage. Of the vast number of wedding furnishings, they were the most important and were carried on palanquins at the head of the extensive wedding procession to the house of the bride. This wedding custom reached its peak as the daimyo (feudal lords) were competing for financial power during the seventeenth century, after which it was adopted by the private sector and became a custom among upper-class townspeople, albeit on a smaller scale. As samurai society approached its end around 1868, the custom died out. Thus, this is the first time in well over a century that a complete kai-oke set with shells has been produced.

A light layer of lacquer is applied to the inside of the clam shell, over which gold leaf is pressed<br/>
Painting flower designs onto the shells with Nihonga pigment.<br/>
To strengthen the <em>kai-oke</em> structure, hemp cloth is applied to the inner and outer surface with two coats of lacquer<br/>

Kai-awase is both the name for the shell-matching game and for the painted clam shells used in the game. It was first played from around the ninth century, but it was from the sixteenth century that the historical significance of kai-awase sets and an awareness of them as a symbol of samurai families’ status was recognised. The defining feature of the game was the pairing of bivalve shells: a pair of shells would only match if they were each other’s original partner, a concept thought to symbolise monogamous relationships. To explain the elegant game briefly, it involves pairing matching clam-shell halves from a large array placed in front of players, the winner being the person who has the most pairs. Initially the game was played by pairing the two halves of undecorated shells; later, many other elements came to be included, such as the players singing songs to each other, which led to lyrics being painted on the shells. This version of the game was favoured by court nobles and flourished for a considerably long time. Players relied on the markings on the outside surface of the clam shells to find matching pairs. To increase the difficulty of the game, white shells with as few markings as possible were often used. Over the years, to make clear that each pair of shells was a set, paired pictures were painted on the insides, making the shells even more attractive and endearing. It is believed that this form of the game was established around the sixteenth century and became fashionable during the seventeenth century. Clams were used for kai-awase because they were white, large and robust, and because of their fulsome, appealing shape and pleasant feel. It seems that by the seventeenth century, however, the popularity of the kai-awase game led to large clams of the native species becoming extinct. Beautiful kai-awase sets attracted interest from Europe as well, and from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, royal and aristocratic families competed to add pieces to their collections.

Kai-wase production

An early motivation for planning and actualising the kai-oke and 360 pairs of shells was simply that the lacquer artist Kitamura Tatsuo had a large number of clam shells in his possession. From upwards of 3000 shells, 400 pairs (this included forty spares) were carefully selected to maintain uniformity of size and shape. Even with this many shells to choose from, we soon came to realise that in times long past procuring 360 pairs of clams of the 85–97 millimetre width required for this project must have been almost impossible.

The clam shells were prepared by having their inside and outside surfaces thoroughly washed and polished, a difficult process that required five people to complete. Once each shell was polished, gold leaf with a purity of 95.79 per cent was adhered to its inside surface. Some examples from the past are layered with fine paper into which gold leaf has been pressed, or are painted with gold paint. In this case, lacquer was thinly applied to the inner surface of the shells prior to adhesion of the gold leaf in order to bring out the gloss and lustre of the gilt. This process was undertaken by two young female lacquer artisans who imparted an excellent finish to the gold leafing of the 720 shells they completed.

Many historical kai-awase shells feature idealised scenes from aristocratic life and historical literature, while others feature scenery, birds, luxurious lifestyle items and so on. For this set, it was decided to use flower motifs, in part influenced by the superb floral kai-awase shells that remain in the Reizei family of Kyoto, a house with a traditional poetry lineage dating back more than 700 years. It was also thought that by featuring well-known flora, the significance and value of reviving kai-awase would be more impactful.

At the planning stages, the shell painters had yet to be found, but production on the kai-oke commenced regardless. There is no point making a kai-oke without the painted shells that accompany them, so thankfully we were able to find three emerging Nihonga artists from Kyoto who understood and supported the project’s purpose. Their abilities were much anticipated, but it was not as simple as conventional Nihonga painting. There were many technical challenges; in particular, the painters had great difficulty controlling their brushes on the uneven concave surface of the shell and on the layer of gold leaf.

Initially, the selection of the 360 species of flowers and their composition was left to the discretion of the painters, but once painting commenced it became clear the volume of work could not be handled by three artists, so twenty-five other production members, mainly lacquer artists, were hastily brought on board. This made a total of twenty-eight people working on the flower designs using actual specimens, botanical illustrations or photographs as references. A historical account outlining the experience of the painters who worked on the historical Reizei kai-awase shells gives an insight into the amount of responsibly and work undertaken by the painters:

‘The number 360 would have put a lot of pressure on the painters … They must have worked tirelessly to achieve this figure. In order to conquer these numbers, they must have reached out to botany’.
Fumiko Reizei, Reizeike no Hanakaiawase, Shoshi Furōra, Akita, Japan, 2007.

In other words, the SOS call made by the painters of the contemporary kai-awase game was completely reasonable.

Making the kai-oke

Production of the two kai-oke was informed by another pair of kai-oke in the Pauline Gandel collection of Japanese lacquer that are thought to date from the eighteenth century. Formerly owned by the Mori family, a great daimyo family in western Japan, they are in good condition and have a dignified appearance. In June 2013, with Pauline’s cooperation, this historical kai-oke set was transported from Melbourne to Wajima, where those producing the new kai-oke could view them, perform detailed investigations and make notes before starting the project. Both the containers and stands of the Mori family kai-oke are decorated with gold maki-e designs of the Mori family crest; kai-awase shells are also presented in relief taka-maki-e designs on the insides of the lids and the upper surfaces of the stands. Because there were no remaining kai-awase shells from the set and no clues to the pictures featured on them, it was decided to use the flower theme of the Reizei family kai-awase shells for this new kai-awase project. It was further envisioned that the Maki-e design decorating the new kai-oke should have magnificent chrysanthemums depicted in taka-maki-e rising up from the base and blooming in clusters throughout the central panels of the kai-oke and on top of the lids. Chrysanthemums have long been a traditional motif in Japanese lacquerwork, and the aim was to use precise taka-maki-e to revitalise the Japanese sensibility with which they have come to be associated over the years.

The new kai-oke were to be the same shape and size as the reference Mori family kai-oke, which are perfectly balanced in form. To begin with, a half-scale timber prototype was produced to allow an understanding of structure and assembly. Once these issues were resolved, production began. Despite the team following the measurements, corrections had to be made many times over. The most difficult aspect of the work was hollowing out the concave surface of the underside of the lid – the deep hollowing in the lid’s underside creates a smooth, octagonal, concave surface without compromising its strength. The only way to recreate this precisely was to rely on the subtle sensations of the carver’s fingertips until a satisfactory shape was achieved. Even for the veteran woodcarver in charge of the process, the construction of the kai-oke presented many challenges. The sensitive touch required to create such carefully crafted details on the lid, as with every aspect of the project, shows the precision and skill with which craftspeople in times past were equipped.

The boxes and stands of the Mori family reference kai-oke were constructed from numerous wooden boards. Grooves were carved for the joints between each board and packed with hard lacquer filler for reinforcement. Even after 200 to 300 years, this careful construction remains sturdy and unchanged. After this step, all surfaces inside and out had two layers of hemp cloth pasted over them to strengthen the joins. Next, a mixture of diatomaceous earth (soft rock crumbled into a white powder) and lacquer was applied as a base coat. Once this had hardened, it was polished to a smooth surface over which a mixture of tonoko (polishing powder made from dried clay) and more lacquer was applied and polished eight times to form intermediate layers and create a sturdy container core. The outer coats of lacquer were then applied and the final maki-e and taka-maki-e work was carried out.

Work on the kai-oke, from creating the bare wooden structure up to the final maki-e decoration, was a sober process. The reason excellent lacquer products produced from a wooden base have been passed down over centuries with little sign of deterioration is due to such precise techniques applied across the production process. Producing this contemporary kai-oke strongly influenced the nine people working on this component of the project and increased their technical knowledge, particularly those responsible for crafting the wooden structures of the kai-oke.

Maki-e technique for the kai-oke

A key feature of the project was the finished maki-e decoration on the main body of the kai-oke. As mentioned previously, it was decided to use chrysanthemum motifs, as chrysanthemum flowers have been used as traditional motifs since ancient times and have auspicious associations. It was thought they would create a timeless appeal and evoke an atmosphere of dignity, majesty and visual splendour.

Preparation drawing for <em>kai-oke</em> chrysanthemum design (detail)<br/>
The <em>taka-maki-e</em> process: the raised chrysanthemum flowers have thin flakes of gold applied before being sprinkled with gold powder<br/>

Preliminary sketches took a considerable amount of time, as the gorgeous composition included not only the main sections of the kai-oke but also the surfaces of the stands. In line with ancient iconographic expression, three aspects of the chrysanthemum flower in full bloom were incorporated into the design: we see the front, back and underside. Eight people were involved in the maki-e process and the complex taka-maki-e technique, where fine charcoal powder was used to create relief decoration. One by one, each flower petal was gently raised and shaped with ground charcoal then hardened with lacquer. This process was repeated, with shapes corrected and refined to gradually create a solid, three-dimensional motif.

Creating the <em>nashiji</em> surface by sprinkling gold powder onto wet lacquer<br/>
Building up the relief <em>taka-maki-e</em> on a <em>kai-oke</em> lid before the final lacquer and gold-powder coating<br/>
The gold chrysanthemum section on the <em>kai-oke</em> lid has been coated with lacquer and gold powder. Once hardened, this will be ground to refine the shape of flower petals and leaves. Black sections have not yet had gold powder applied. The leaf colours are varied by the type of gold powder used.<br/>

Maki-e is the general term for the technique of applying gold, silver, shell or precious stones – either in small pieces or ground into a fine powder – to lacquer. Multiple materials were used in the taka-maki-e decoration on the inside of the lids and stands, but for the external surface of the boxes only gold powder was used. Gold used for lacquer decoration comes in various sizes and types, from extremely fine powder through to flakes, with different types used depending on the desired expression. Similarly, different colours of gold powder are available. For the underside of the chrysanthemum leaves, gold with a high silver content resulted in a bluish tinge, creating a depth and nuance of expression. Particular care was taken with polishing the gold powder to ensure it expressed a gentle, serene shine – if care is not taken with such details, a flat, dull expression results. Classical visual effects were retained by using the gorgeous kin-nashiji technique (meaning ‘golden pear’; created by sprinkling tiny gold flakes to create a pear skin–like textured appearance on the surface).

As the backdrop for the Maki-e chrysanthemum motif, the brilliant nashiji that covers the entire kai-oke was crucial to the overall result. Simply sprinkling large amounts of gold powder on it would only render it tasteless, whereas considered application allows faint glimpses of the black lacquer coating and gives an attractive, rich expression with a sense of depth. To accomplish this, six people were required to apply the lacquer on to large surface areas of the kai-oke, working with speed before the lacquer solidified. The sprinkling of nashiji gold powder immediately followed. This also required great precision and rapid application, with three craftspeople courageously synchronising their movements in order for the powder to adhere properly. The metallic powder was sprinkled and coated with lacquer up to four times until the desired effect was achieved, after which the entire object was polished back to create the finished nashiji surface.

‘The true challenge of this imposing project … will be in how the experience is used in the future to develop Japanese lacquerwork and maki-e production, and in how the project’s participants apply the knowledge they have gained in future projects.’

There are six pairs of shells with motifs decorating the insides of the kai-oke lids and five pairs on the stands. At first, these Maki-e motifs remain hidden and can only be seen by people who untie the kai-oke cords, remove the boxes from their stands and open the lids. One would not expect these hidden areas to be decorated with luxurious designs, but they are reserved as a special treat for those playing the game. A new approach of combining the two techniques of maki-e and chinkin was trialled to add an additional layer of expression over these hidden surfaces. By incorporating chinkin Kitamura added yet another challenge to this unprecedented project. To produce this technique, lines and dots are carved into the surface of the lacquer and inlaid with gold and other maki-e powders to create a design. Actively using nashiji and chinkin techniques together had never been attempted before, the reason being that adding chinkin, which requires a sharp blade to carve the lacquer surface, is almost taboo. I feel this experimental approach and its risk of failure appealed to Kitamura’s pioneering spirit, but also his overwhelming desire to make the kai-oke a successful product of Wajima: chinkin decoration is symbolic of Wajima-nuri eighteenth-century historical expression, hence the new kai-oke maintains a close association with the town. The three young women whose job it was to engrave with the chinkin blade on the surface of the lacquer worked under intense pressure, and the result is a credit to them. Initially, I imagine they wanted to run away, but their radiant faces when viewing the result was unforgettable. I was so impressed when they accomplished this incredibly difficult task so well.

While there were numerous other challenges along the way, the leaders of each process prevailed and the kai-oke were completed. Finally, the insides of the boxes were lined with paper impressed with gold leaf prepared by a young foil maker in Kanazawa, Japan’s gold leaf– manufacturing centre, and the silver fittings concealed beneath the stands for the decorative cord were installed with a high level of perfection by two young metal craftsmen who had never produced such fittings before. There were also numerous additional components, like the wrapping cloths and covers for protecting the kai-awase parts, looked after by one of the maki-e artisans, and the various auxiliary fittings, such as the storage cases and travelling units. All were completed with precision and a perfect finish.

Closing remarks: Australia and Japan

Japanese craftwork was first introduced to Australia in 1875 at the Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne, held in the current State Library of Victoria building, where the NGV was first located. Items such as ceramics, copperware, textiles, embroidery, umbrellas and fans were exhibited. A young Japanese government official, who until ten years before had been a samurai, attended the exhibition and reported back that wooden inlaid chests, desks and trays were popular and sold well. This official was warmly greeted wherever he went and wrote of the great kindness and cooperation of Australian officials. Reading between the lines, it seems he felt a sense of warm gratitude to the people of Melbourne. Nearly 100 years later, in the 1960s, Shoji Hamada and other ceramic masters from Japan were invited to Australia, after which Japanese craft production was introduced to Australia in earnest. Now, there are many accomplished Australian netsuke artists expanding the boundaries of traditional Japanese crafts.
<em>Mōri clan kai-oke shell boxes</em><br/>
<em>(Mōri han maki-e kai-oke)</em><br/>
Edo period (1600&ndash;15) &ndash; 1868<br/>
lacquer on wood (maki-e), silk<br/>
61.0 &times; 47.0 &times; 47.0 cm (each)<br/>
Collection of Dr Pauline Gandel, Melbourne<br/>

However, the current state of traditional Japanese crafts is worrisome. While art for art’s sake flourishes in various fields such as lacquerwork, ceramics and metalwork, the decline of traditional and industrial crafts that developed in close relation with daily life seems unstoppable. Production by Wajima’s lacquerware industry continues to shrink as a consequence of the dramatic changes wrought by Japanese people’s shift towards Western living environments and ways of life. Japan has forgotten the abundance of joy once present in crafts that coexisted with daily life and has left them behind as it speeds through modern times and the industrialisation of handcrafts.

Lacquerwork is just one of many traditional craft techniques for which there is insufficient demand and an inability to secure workers, and there are few opportunities to cultivate human resources to carry on traditional methods. Nevertheless, Wajima has produced a high number of lacquer techniques and is home to young, talented artists striving to improve their skills, and it is this combination that led to the successful collaborative production of this work. While it could be said that difficult and archaic skills were required to complete this project, it can also be said that this was exactly the right time to complete new kai-oke and kai-awase sets. This is likely what Kitamura thought as he led the project. Knowing that competing with each other in skill and sensibility is precisely what brings out higher potential in craftspeople, he created a setting where various skills were coordinated for collaborative production. The true challenge of this imposing project, the result of a two-and-a-half year battle by Kitamura and forty-six skilled people under the guidance of five supervisors, will be in how the experience is used in the future to develop Japanese lacquerwork and maki-e production, and in how the project’s participants apply the knowledge they have gained in future projects.

I would like to once again note with gratitude that without the support and encouragement of Pauline and John Gandel this project would never have progressed to completion. The way they affectionately watched over the members of the group and offered their encouragement was a motivational force that enabled the production team to overcome complex technical difficulties and complete the project.

<em>Hibiscus mutabilis</em> (rose of Sharon or cotton rose) フヨウ<br/>
<em>Hosta</em> sp. (plantain lily) ギボウシ<br/>

Japanese crafts were first introduced to Australia more than 140 years ago in Melbourne, and it is fortuitous that this magnificent lacquerwork – an entirely new kai-oke and kai-awase set – is being unveiled in the same city. It is impossible not to feel a deep connection to the fact it was completed with support from Australia. This unprecedented work, of which there is no example even in Japan, was created by a group that included many young creators. It is not easy for them to earn a living from their skills, and yet, lacquer’s mysterious beauty continues to draw aspiring young people. The tradition and workmanship required to create maki-e, for which the world once pursued Japan in olden times, is not lost. This kai-awase game is proof that we must continue to strive to bring Japanese crafts to life. I would like to ask the people of Australia to continue to be good supporters and advisors.

This article was originally published in the publication Golden Shells and Elegant Games of Japan .



Maki-e is a highly decorative style of lacquerware produced by sprinkling gold and other decorative powders and flakes on a lacquer base. The term means ‘sprinkled picture’.


Inro (‘name seal basket’) are small containers, often compartmentalised boxes, attached by a cord and a netsuke (toggle) to the waist sash of a male kimono. Beautifully decorated inro and intricately carved netsuke were essential accessories for fashionable men during the Edo period.


Literally meaning ‘Japanese picture’, Nihonga refers to the traditional style of Japanese painting used on screens, scrolls, paper and wooden panels, with black ink and ground pigment bound with gum arabic or animal glue.