Japan Table of Contents

The many and varied traditional handicrafts of Japan enjoyed official recognition and protection and, owing to the folk art movement, were much in demand. Each craft demanded a set of specialized skills. Textile crafts, for example, included silk, hemp, and cotton, woven (after spinning and dyeing) in forms from timeless folk designs to complex court patterns. Village crafts evolving from ancient folk traditions also continued in weaving and indigo dyeing in Hokkaido by the Ainu peoples, whose distinctive designs had prehistoric prototypes, and by other remote farming families in northern Japan. Silk-weaving families can be traced to the fifteenth century in the famous Nishijin weaving center of Kyoto, where elegant fabrics worn by the emperor and the aristocracy were produced. In the seventeenth century, designs on textiles were applied using stencils and rice paste, in the yuzen or paste-resist method of dyeing. The yuzen method provided an imitation of aristocratic brocades, which were forbidden to commoners by sumptuary laws. Moriguchi Kako of Kyoto has continued to create works of art in his yuzen-dyed kimonos, which were so sought after that the contemporary fashion industry designed an industrial method to copy them for use on Western-style clothing. Famous designers, such as Hanae Mori, borrowed extensively from kimono patterns for their couturier collections. By the late 1980s, an elegant, handwoven, dyed kimono had become extremely costly, running to US$25,000 for a formal garment. In Okinawa the famous yuzen-dyeing method was especially effective where it was produced in the bingata stencil-dyeing techniques, which produced exquisitely colored, striking designs as artistic national treasures.

Lacquer, the first plastic, was invented in Asia, and its use in Japan can be traced to prehistoric finds. Lacquer ware is most often made from wooden objects, which receive multiple layers of refined lac juices, each of which must dry before the next is applied. These layers make a tough skin impervious to water damage and to resist breakage, providing lightweight, easy-to-clean utensils of every sort. The decoration on such lacquers, whether carved through different colored layers or in surface designs, applied with gold or inlaid with precious substances, has been a prized art form since the Nara period (A.D. 710-94).

Papermaking is another contribution of Asian civilization; the Japanese art of making paper from the mulberry plant is thought to have begun in the sixth century A.D. Dyeing paper with a wide variety of hues and decorating it with designs became a major preoccupation of the Heian court, and the enjoyment of beautiful paper and its use has continued thereafter, with some modern adaptations. The traditionally made paper called Izumo (after the shrine area where it is made) was especially desired for fusuma (sliding panels) decoration, artists' papers, and elegant letter paper. Some printmakers have their own logo made into their papers, and since the Meiji period, another special application has been Western marbleized end papers (made by the Atelier Miura in Tokyo).

Metalwork is epitomized in the production of the Japanese sword, of extremely high quality. These swords originated before the first century B.C. and reached their height of popularity as the chief possession of warlords and samurai. The production of a sword has retained something of the religious quality it once had in embodying the soul of the samurai and the martial spirit of Japan. For many Japanese, the sword, one of the "three jewels" of the nation, remained a potent symbol; possessors would treasure a sword and it would be maintained within the family, its loss signifying their ruin.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress