History / Challenge
If the Edo era (1603-1868) offered craftsmen the patronage of the higher classes--and the opportunity to develop the quality of their art, the subsequent Meiji era, with its increased contact with the West and the growing power of the merchant class, offered them a steadily expanding market. As Hirayama explains, production of 'owan' (bowls) and 'ozen' (individual standing trays) grew to meet a demand from this newly moneyed portion of society. "In the early days of the industry, lacquer products were made presents to feudal lords, or used as status symbols for individuals, or then again for daily use, perhaps for the employees of a company. Once people had an appropriate number for their own family's use, they began accumulating sets of 50 or 100 for entertaining guests." These special utensils were also indispensable during the two annual holidays, New Years and 'Obon' (the Buddhist All-Souls' Day), when nearly the entire population of Japan vacationed for up to seven days.
Unlike the other traditional crafts materials Y.M.D. products are helping to redefine, lacquer is being replaced slowly by materials even those in the industry can praise as better than the real thing in many respects, so that producing lacquer ware is no longer the same craft it once was. Not only have many traditional products fallen by the wayside, but machine work has replaced hand crafting in many steps of the process. While it's become cheaper and cheaper to make lacquer products, there have been few concurrent changes in design and distribution to take advantage of this. Slipping towards unprofitability, the industry is also nearly devoid of young blood.
Igarashi has designed pieces that no one versed in the complex lacquer ware process of Aizu-Wakamatsu City could have imagined possible; with a combination of heretofore separately applied straight lines and curves, and pieces in which precision must be measured in microns, he thus discovered the very outer limits of lacquer technology, and expanded these limits by just that little bit.
It should be mentioned here that because Hirayama Industries works with ten subcontractors, for me to look into the production of a "simple" flower vase, it was necessary to tour a succession of workshops, which entailed my listening to a number of explanations, all sprinkled with a fair amount of shoptalk grumbling--always about the same thing--Igarashi and his demand for precision where there had been none. The base coats of lacquer are sprayed on, to insure an even coating, and the final touches are applied delicately by hand. This step, being the one that makes or breaks the product, is especially distressing if, for instance, the pieces of the flower vase do not fit properly in the end. The final drying of the product, which must take place in an environment whose humidity measures between 60% and 70%, is also ruined by any stray particles, which will stick to the lacquer and give it a grainy finish. As Igarashi himself, now fully educated by this trying experience, says, "Although my design is very simple, manufacturing something very simple is very difficult--a beautiful clean circle, a perfectly straight box... And I realized that lacquer is a very imprecise art. The dimensions of the piece change based on the number of times you coat it. And corners have to be rounded. Sharp edges are out. Furthermore, the entire town of Aizu is involved. The shop cutting the boards, the assembly place, the lacquering shop, all these are different. On top of that, a design incorporating curves and straight lines has to be cut in two different shops. And the price goes up. The system isn't adapted to new designs; it's made for 'owan' (bowls) and 'jubako' (stacking boxes)."