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Lacquer wares are objects, usually made of wood, which have been covered with several layers of sap from the lacquer tree to produce a hard, shiny surface. In Japan, lacquer has been excavated that dates from the Late Jōmon period (about 2500-1000 BC). It was mainly used for decoration but it also preserved objects against corrosion and was occasionally used to repair ceramics. Buddhist images were also made from lacquer-soaked moulded textile (kanshitsu)
The natural sap is almost clear, but early lacquerers often mixed it with charcoal or cinnabar to produce black or red. From the sixth to eighth century lacquer has been a leading Japanese craft, with sophisticated techniques introduced by immigrant workers. Many objects in the eighth-century Shōsōin treasure house are native pieces decorated with Chinese designs.
A variety of decorative techniques were used. Early Chinese methods included raden (inlaid shell) and heidatsu ( silver and gold sheet inlay), while the Japanese developed makie, 'sprinkled illustrations' of gold filings; nashiji, a 'speckled pear skin' effect using metallic dust, and hiramakie, with the appearance of flat gold. Carved red lacquer, learnt from Song dynasty China, was particularly popular. During the Momoyama period (1568-1600) the Japanese developed takamakie, a method of building up layers of lacquer in high relief. Spanish and Portuguese missionaries also brought European influences.
Throughout the Edo period (1600-1868) lacquerers were in great demand, working as official craftsmen to the shogun and daimyō, and also serving the flourishing non-samurai classes. Bolder designs were encouraged by the Rimpa school and artists such as Shibata Zeshin (1807-91).
From the Meiji period (1868-1912), lacquer was sponsored by the imperial family, thus ensuring its continuity today.