Negoro – Japanese red lacquerware

Lacquer has a long history in Japanese arts.

The earliest uses date to approximately 7,000 B.C., during the Jomon period (which takes its name from the era’s distinctive “cord marked” pottery and ceramics).

Japanese decorative lacquer is produced from the sap of the lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), which is toxic when wet but forms a hard coating when dry. For centuries, Japanese artisans have applied lacquer to a variety of products, from lamellar armor to serving dishes and even paintings, and to surfaces ranging from wood and paper to leather. Since lacquer serves a preservative function as well as a decorative one, many ancient lacquered objects survive to this day.

During the Muromachi period (the era in which I set my Shinobi novels), artisans often coated objects with black lacquer and then covered the darker undercoat with two or three layers of red lacquer finish. As the object aged, the red lacquer slowly cracked or wore away, revealing the darker color underneath.

13G05 Negoroware
Image credit: Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art

Today, these red-over-black lacquered objects are known as negoro-nuri or negoro-ware. Historians believe the name derives from Negoro-ji, a temple in Japan’s Kii province.

During the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333), priests at Negoro-ji produced lacquered utensils for the temple using the red-over-black lacquer technique. As time passed, people began to call such objects negoro-nuri. The name spread, and gained popularity, until it became a general term for lacquered objects made with this technique.

When you eat at a Japanese restaurant and receive a red-lacquered bowl (usually with a red or black interior) it’s a variation on this medieval style, which has become iconic in Japanese pottery and dishware.

Do you own, or have you eaten off of, dishware with this red and black lacquered pattern? What do you think of negoro-ware?

2 thoughts on “Negoro – Japanese red lacquerware

  • June 6, 2013 at 8:04 am

    Yes. I’ve eaten off dishware with this pattern.

    The most interesting thing I’ve learned about lacquer was its use in castles. Castles in the Kansai area tended to use blank lacquer on the walls as it held up against the humidity better vs. the white castle walls in the Kanto region.

    • June 6, 2013 at 10:19 am

      That’s a fascinating detail, Walt – I don’t think I’d heard about the reason for the black lacquer in those castles before. I’d assumed it was a design preference – but now that you mention it, it makes a lot of sense!

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