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The Japan Times Original Plan

Feb 17, 2021

Let’s support the efforts to preserve and nurture the Japanese urushi lacquer culture

The Moment, a gift for the future

The information that deserves to be sent from Japan to the world is diverse and not only limited to journalism.

Safety, the environment, abundant resources, as well as nature and culture in Japan are common assets of the world. The Moment crowdfunding not only showcases individuals and groups who are continuously working on preserving these assets for future generations to the world through newspapers and websites, but also embodies the empathy of readers who want to closely watch such activities and support them in the medium to long term.

The Moment is a gift for the future.

Join us to support people who take on the challenges of inheriting traditions and passing them along to future generations.

Following the first project of The Moment, which introduced Obata Sake Brewery (Sado, Niigata Prefecture), the second project features Joboji Urushi Workshop (Morioka, Iwate Prefecture), Jisedai Urushi Kyokai (Morioka, Iwate Prefecture) and Urushi Next (Akita, Akita Prefecture).

Urushi Next (president: Koji Shibata) received the Excellence Award in the Japan Times Satoyama and ESG Awards 2019 in the satoyama category for its efforts in increasing, utilizing and preserving Japanese urushi (lacquer). This award was established by The Japan Times to highlight companies, organizations and individuals who have taken outstanding initiatives in satoyama and ESG (environmental, social and governance) activities and to contribute to society by disseminating their successes in Japan and abroad.

The second The Moment project, with hopes for three groups preserving urushi

Activities for preserving urushi vary from spreading the word on its benefits to making and selling lacquered products, creating new methods of using it and passing on traditions and techniques to future generations. We would like to introduce and support the collaborative efforts of three groups; Jisedai Urushi Kyokai, which produces lacquered products, Joboji Urushi Workshop, which sells lacquered products, and Urushi Next, a nonprofit that raises awareness about urushi.

Articles published in The Japan Times Online

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Beginnings in Iwate government

It all started when Takuo Matsuzawa, who now serves as president and representative director of Joboji Urushi Workshop, was working for the Iwate prefectural government and was assigned to promote the urushi industry.

In Japan, as much as 97 percent of the urushi used for lacquerware is imported from overseas, including China and Vietnam, while only 3 percent is made in Japan. Iwate Prefecture produces 73 percent of the domestic urushi. To protect this small production of Japanese urushi, Matsuzawa engaged the industry in various ways as an administrative officer, from their operations such as drawing sap from lacquer trees and lacquering products to the fields of cultural properties and artworks that use urushi.

It was probably an advantage for him to be a government employee, since he could look at the entire industry from a broad perspective. As he deepened his understanding of urushi, the urushi industry, and the history and culture of urushi, and after having in-depth exchanges with urushi stakeholders, he became eager to protect this natural material, which is friendly to the environment and has long contributed to the practical beauty of Japanese culture.

As a civil servant, however, he could not avoid regular changes in assignments. Four years after he was put in charge of urushi, he realized he did not want to quit this work halfway through after having built up abundant knowledge and personnel connections. Matsuzawa decided to quit his job and start a business to continue his activities to promote urushi.

His decision surprised his colleagues and superiors, and some tried to stop him. His wife, though, supported his decision, telling him, "It’s alright that you quit your job and start a business, if you can promise to make it a success.” In 2009, he launched Joboji Urushi Workshop, taking the name from a famed area for urushi production in Iwate Prefecture that makes the wonderful colored lacquerware known as Joboji urushi.

History of Joboji Urushi Workshop

Once established, the company had to create a viable business from its mission of disseminating the attractions and beauty of urushi. The first business Matsuzawa started was purchasing undiluted urushi sap and selling it after refining and processing. At the beginning, however, there was little demand for urushi, let alone domestic urushi, which is more expensive than imports. The products would not sell without finding new sales methods and channels. He created a product containing urushi in tubes so people could buy urushi in amounts as small as 5 or 10 grams, and also made it available at online shops. He cultivated new forms of demand for urushi, including collaborations creating glasses and bottles that incorporate urushi and using urushi for the interiors of automobiles and trains. He also went around giving lectures on the current situation of Japanese-made urushi and the benefits of urushi.

In recent years, kintsugi, a technique of repairing cracked porcelain using urushi as an adhesive and decorating the joints with gold and other powdered metals, became popular in Japan and also came to be recognized abroad. After that, the small tubes of urushi began to sell well.

As Matsuzawa's vigorous activities slowly began to bear fruit, an event occurred that brought a huge change to the industry. Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs determined that domestically produced urushi should in principle be used for the maintenance and repair of designated national treasures and important cultural properties, starting from fiscal year 2018. This was a significant decision for the protection of domestic urushi. A new problem arose, however. The production area of urushi had been decreasing throughout Japan, including Iwate Prefecture. The production of Japanese urushi could not keep up with the growing demand, and it became difficult to obtain sufficient amounts of urushi sap.

Peers and technologies needed

Increasing production of domestic urushi to improve self-sufficiency and achieve a stable supply became a pressing need. Creating new production area seemed extremely difficult for a company with only three employees. It would require many hands to carry out large-scale projects for growing seedlings, planting them and later harvesting their sap. It would take significant effort just to coordinate this work.

That is how the Jisedai Urushi Kyokai came to be established in 2018. Kakuta Hosogoe, who runs a forestry business in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, serves as the organization’s representative director and is responsible for the production of lacquer trees. Matsuzawa and Hosogoe became connected through one urushi tree: Hosogoe found it while working in the woods and called up Matsuzawa for advice on what to do. The two like-minded persons hit it off and got to talking about promoting the production of lacquer trees together. To recruit people who can work on growing the trees, the Jisedai Urushi Kyokai organizes tree-planting events and puts out calls for participants, and it cooperates with sapling companies all over Japan to grow seedlings.

To bring urushi into people's daily lives, it is important to promote its benefits and to propose new ways of using it as well as to satisfy the growing demand for the restoration of cultural properties. Urushi Next, a nonprofit organization, is responsible for that part. Its chairman, Koji Shibata, is a marketing expert. Matsuzawa and Shibata met at a gift show held at Tokyo Big Sight in 2018. Shibata visited the booth of Joboji Urushi Workshop, found the booth unique, and talked with Matsuzawa.

Matsuzawa steadily gained peers. Another important issue was improving technology to allow the quick, efficient and stable collection of urushi sap.

Firstly, urushi tree seeds are difficult to germinate. A study is currently underway with the help of research institutes and seedling companies to increase the germination rate and seedling production volume.

Secondly, the trees take more than 10 years to become ready for sap collection. To tackle this issue, Matsuzawa, together with the National Institute of Technology, Okinawa College, developed a collecting method using a technology called “shockwave tree bark busting,” which uses shock waves to apply pressure to the tree trunk to boost the collection of sap. This method doubles the volume of urushi production compared with the conventional method of scoring the tree trunk with a special tool. In addition, it has been found that using this new technology, urushi sap can be collected from trees as young as 7 to 8 years old.

Crunch and new ideas under COVID-19

In 2020, all major exhibitions were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. While some business can be conducted through web meetings etc., the number of new business negotiations has naturally decreased, along with opportunities for overseas expansion. Jisedai Urushi Kyokai had to downsize its tree-planting events and stop calling for participants from the Tokyo metropolitan area. While the association had planned to plant 5,000 seedlings every year, only 3,500 were planted last year.

Moreover, although the association had planned the first sap collection using the shockwave device last summer, that had to be postponed due to COVID-19. The operation requires experts to handle a special high-voltage device, but the researchers involved are based in the south, in Okinawa and Kumamoto, and could not travel all the way up north to Iwate. Sap runs inside the tree trunks from around June and becomes ready for collection during summer. Nature will not wait no matter what happens in the human world. This year, the association aims to collect urushi sap using this new technology, and is searching for ways to operate the technology locally as much as possible in the future.

While some things could not be implemented, some new initiatives were able to be started. One of them is face masks dyed using urushi wood chips. This was based on the idea that urushi has an antibacterial effect and may be suitable in health care products. In addition, research is currently underway into its potential antiviral properties.

In addition, Joboji Urushi Workshop also manufactures and sells a wooden foot-operated sanitizer stand called Craftsman Stand. It is used as a gift to people who make a donation to the Iwate town of Karumai through the tax-deductible furusato nozei (hometown donation) program. Wood from local cedars is used for the stands, and Joboji is planning to create a urushi-coated stand in the future.

Joboji also makes tea using roasted urushi berries. It has a fragrant scent, and its active ingredients are currently being studied. Japan can be said to have an advantage in the idea of using the entire urushi tree without wasting anything.

Widely promoting the benefits of urushi

Urushi has other benefits that many people don't know about. Since urushi can enhance the strength of materials when applied to the surface, it is sometimes used for musical instruments and fishing tackle. Urushi is also durable, although vulnerable to damage from ultraviolet rays, and environmentally friendly when it decomposes. And above all, it is an incredible renewable resource that will not be exhausted if grown and managed steadily.

Last year, Urushi Next produced urushi badges to support the United Nations sustainable development goals. They symbolized the realization of a sustainable society through becoming familiar with traditional artisanship and the wisdom passed down from ancestors who from long ago used urushi, a sustainable and natural material. The sustainable development goals have colorful motifs, with each of the 17 goals expressed in a different color. The badges have 17 different bright colors, all created with urushi. Many people may not know that urushi can come in such varied colors, which is quite different from the typical image associated with lacquerware.

"Planting trees contributes to reducing CO2, and trees can be used as natural materials to replace plastic, which causes marine pollution," Matsuzawa said. The trees "can be used without waste ... and by continuing to use urushi, Japanese urushi culture can be passed on to future generations. Urushi products make people's lives more colorful and safer. Urushi is full of benefits, and no other tree can give us such abundant blessings. We would like to share these benefits not only with Japanese people but also with people all over the world,”

Some people may have a negative image of urushi, as it causes a rash when touched, and may have a preconception that urushi can only be used for expensive lacquerware that is not suitable for daily use. Matsuzawa feels that new opportunities must be created for people to recognize the value of urushi once again.

In addition, urushi is gaining new fans abroad who are impressed by urushi products and the idea of kintsugi, breathing new life into broken porcelain by repairing it using urushi. We would like to join hands with many other people to support the activities of Matsuzawa and others to increase domestic urushi supplies, make the most of its characteristics, use products created with it and preserve them for the future, reaching out to people both in Japan and abroad. We look forward to your participation.

Rewards

White lacquered chopsticks

Rare white urushi is used. These simple chopsticks match any tableware. The size is suitable to carry with a lunchbox.
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White lacquered sake cup

Lacquered sake cup feels smooth to the lips, bringing out the flavor of sake. It is finished with white urushi.
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White lacquered tray

A white tray will be useful for various purposes — for serving coffee and sweets, or a meal for a guest.
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