Lacquerware artisans are still displaced by earthquake in Japan

Thousands of people are still displaced following an earthquake in Ishikawa prefecture in Japan on Jan. 1. The epicenter of the quake was on the Noto Peninsula, an area known for its deep traditions, including a distinct style of lacquered tableware and teaware made in the town of Wajima. The earthquake triggered a fire in Wajima, and lacquerware craftspeople lost workshops full of specialized tools. Hannah Kirshner caught up with some of these artisans in Yamanaka Onsen, at the southwest corner of Ishikawa, where some have relocated, to see how the move might redefine this centuries-old craft.

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Rabea Gebbler touches a blade to a fast-spinning piece of wood on a lathe. Shavings fly off in ribbons. And the wood takes the shape of a bowl — the kind used for miso soup. Gebbler is German and came to Yamanaka Onsen about two years ago to study the town’s specific style of woodturning. 

“Yamanaka means in the middle of the mountains. So there’s a lot of wood,” said Gebbler. 

Rabea Gebbler turns a wooden bowl on a Yamanaka-style lathe.Hannah Kirshner/The World

For hundreds of years, Yamanaka artisans have been turning that wood into tableware and teaware. Sometimes, the woodturners apply a finish themselves. But often, their products become a canvas for artisans from Wajima, a northern city in the Ishikawa Prefecture on the Noto Peninsula that is famous for lacquering. 

In Wajima, lacquer specialists apply urushi — lacquer made from the sap of urushi trees. Wajima lacquerware — called Wajima-nuri — is influenced by its proximity to the sea: it’s especially strong because the urushi is mixed with local diatomaceous earth. 

Pigmented urushi on the Shirota’s work table.Hannah Kirshner/The World

In each of these towns, a specific craft is part of the identity of that place. And these places are part of the identity of their crafts. 

On Jan. 1, a major earthquake rocked the Noto Peninsula, and Wajima was one of the hardest-hit areas. The earthquake shook the continuity of Wajima-nuri and upended the lives of its makers.

Producing one piece of Wajima-nuri can take five craftspeople and more than 100 steps. 

“You’ll have someone making the base material. You’ll have someone doing the base coats, the middle coats, and the top coats, and then even the person for the sanding in between,” Gebbler explained.

The result is shiny opaque lacquer, usually black or red. 

An assortment of Ayano Konishi’s maki-e works, displayed on her kitchen table.Hannah Kirshner/The World

Moreover, sometimes another craftsperson applies maki-e. Maki-e is a painstaking process of painting detailed illustrations with urushi and sprinkling gold (or other precious mineral) powder onto the design. Tiny bits of pearlescent shell or iridescent insect wings are also used: imagine making a mosaic from individual pieces of glitter.

Ayano Konishi is a maki-e artist who had her studio in Wajima until the earthquake earlier this year.

In her Yamanaka kitchen, Ayano Konishi shows a lacquerware cup decorated with hydrangeas.Hannah Kirshner/The World

Her studio was attached to a family lacquerware shop that had been in business for around 250 years, since the Edo period. The shop was on the same street as Wajima’s famous morning market, where vendors sell fish and produce. All along that street were lacquerware shops and studios.

The shop run by Ayano Konishi’s husband and father-in-law before the fire.Courtesy of Ayano Konishi

“On Dec. 31, as usual, our shop was open,” said Konishi. “I took my children for a walk, and we went to the vegetable auntie to buy mandarin oranges and fruits. Everyone greeted us, and the children had a lot of fun.” 

But on New Year’s Day, everything would change.

Konishi and her family were relaxing at their apartment just outside town. 

“There was a tremendous shaking. I really thought the apartment was going to collapse. I really thought we would die,” she said.

Aftershocks kept coming, and in downtown Wajima, a fire broke out. 

Fire consumed downtown Wajima on Jan 1.Courtesy of Ayano Konishi

“The earthquake caused the ground to rise, so there was no water anywhere,” said Konishi. 

Pipes broke and the river and fire cisterns drained, so firefighters couldn’t draw water. Wajima’s morning market and all the lacquerware shops and studios around it burned.

Ayano Konishi’s view of the Wajima morning market, before and after the fire.Courtesy of Ayano Konishi

Six months later, much of Wajima is still uninhabitable. Craftspeople have scattered around the country, staying with relatives or in temporary housing. Some Wajima craftspeople have given up, especially the older ones. 

But Kazuya and Kasumi Shirota, a couple who are both maki-e artisans in their 70s, are determined to continue. After the earthquake, their son urged them to come to live with him in Hyogo prefecture, far from Noto. 

Kasumi Shirota at her work table in Yamanaka.Hannah Kirshner/The World

“I thought, I’m already old, so if I go to my son’s place, I’ll become senile,” said Kazuya Shirota.

Within days of the earthquake, a lacquerware craftsman called the Shirotas from Yamanaka Onsen, the woodturning town. He invited them to come right away and promised to help them start working again.

Now, the Shirotas live and work in an apartment complex in Yamanaka. At the desk they share, Kazuya Shirota works on ornate designs decorating ceremonial objects used in Buddhist temples or during a tea ceremony. On an incense box decorated with a hen and rooster, each feather has been painted one by one, textured with tiny lines, and finished with seven different types of gold powder.

Kazuya Shirota’s works in progress.Hannah Kirshner/The World

The Shirotas say they wish they could return to Wajima. They can get money from the government to tear down their damaged house, but they would have to rebuild at their own expense. It could take years. At 70, they don’t think it’s realistic.

Ayano Konishi, who had her studio near Wajima’s morning market, also ended up in Yamanaka, just a few doors down in the same apartment complex. She explained that tools are often passed down from parent to child or teacher to student. Some types are no longer in production. And even when Konishi bought new tools, she modified them to suit her hands and way of working. She lost most of these in the Wajima fire.

Ayano Konish’s tools for sprinkling powdered gold and other precious metals.Hannah Kirshner/The World

There has been an outpouring of support for Wajima artisans. Craftspeople from all over Japan sent tools, and crowdfunding campaigns received donations from around the world. Because of all that attention, the Wajima artisans who can work are busier than ever. In turn, Yamanaka woodturners are busy making bases for them.

“We are aiming to return to Wajima eventually,” said Konishi. 

But it will take years to clear the rubble and rebuild.

Wajima after the earthquake and fire.Courtesy of Ayano Konishi

For as long as she lives in Yamanaka, Konishi wants to get inspiration from her new environment. Her work draws from nature and is influenced by the people she collaborates with. She recently ordered some wooden bases from a craftsman she met in Yamanaka.

Earthquakes are part of life in Japan. The crafts seen as traditional now were shapedvents, natural resources, and people’s movement. If more Wajima artisans start working in Yamanaka, these two towns and their crafts may become even more interconnected. Some craftspeople are hopeful that this will strengthen them both and allow them to by historical e continue to evolve.

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