Offbeat Wajima Lacquerware to Benefit Today’s Users -1
Today, using Wajima-nuri lacquerware daily at home might sound like a luxury to some. It is interesting that customers who purchase Wajima Kirimoto’s products aren’t limited to the rich or elderly. At his branch in an established department store in Nihombashi, Tokyo, 65% of those who purchase Taiichi’s products are aged between 30 and 50, according to his data. In particular, the fact that many of those are people in their 30s indicates the change of the younger consumers’ mindset.
“After March 11, 2011, when the great earthquake and tsunami occurred in east Japan, younger people’s way of living began to significantly transform,” said Taiichi. Many younger consumers came to care about their quality of life. They prioritized the present moment and cherished their way of daily living. “I feel that each younger generation is more inclined to choose environmentally-friendly tableware made of natural materials,” Taiichi said. “Lacquerware can act as an emotional support in our life.”
Then are Wajima-nuri lacquerware sales increasing in Japan? Contrary to the success of Taiichi’s Tokyo store, the industry is not optimistic about its situation. Since 2004, a little after the bubble economy burst, the production of Wajima-nuri lacquerware has been drastically dropping. As these charts show*, until the 1960s, industry sales remained steady at just under 1 billion JPY. Then, after the 1970s, demand soared and it enjoyed a golden age until the first half of the 1990s. During the bubble economy period in the l980s, Wajima-nuri lacquer furniture valued at several million yen (tens of thousands of US dollars) sold quite easily. Our perception that Wajima-nuri lacquerware is super-expensive and a luxury not to be used for a daily cuisine was fixed at this time.
Within only 30 years, sales of Wajima-nuri lacquerware fell sharply. The total sales came to 18 billion JPY in 1991, the peak year. In 2016, the figure came down to 4.2 billion JPY, less than one third. The number of workers in the Wajima-nuri lacquer industry was nearly 2,900 during the prime sales period; that number was halved by 2016. A rapid rise also meant a rapid decline when it came to Wajima-nuri lacquerware.
Today, so much cheap tableware, including plastic-made products, are being imported into Japan, encouraging consumers to shun traditional or authentic, good quality tableware. The truth is that many consumers today don’t know how to use this kind of authentic tableware. Popularity, recognition and the number of workers of breathtaking regional crafts could have been much higher.
In a bid to promote Wajima-nuri lacquerware, the tradition of which is believed to have been maintained for 15,000 years, Taiichi travels across Japan and abroad to passionately communicate his message. “I hope more people use Wajima-nuri lacquer tableware in their daily lives,” he said. “What I am doing is continuing this lacquerware’s traditional technique by adding new elements to it.” Without denying the essence and authenticity that nurtured Wajiman-nuri lacquerware for thousands of years, Taiichi is crafting a new style to fit into today’s way of life. This challenge is being made in, and sent out from, a city with a population of only 25,000.
Several rays of light have shone through the windows of Wajima Kirimoto recently. Inquiries from foreign countries are arriving thanks to social media attention. Not only the tableware but also large-sized furniture can be manufactured at Taiichi’s factory. This photo shows a custom-made Wajima-nuri lacquer business table ordered by a Chicago-based customer.
Will Taihchi’s challenge be able to save the waning Wajima-nuri lacquer tradition? Wajima Kirimoto’s attempt will continue.
*Wajima City Statistics compiled in 2017. (平成29年刊行 輪島市統計書)
Credited photos provided by Wajima Kirimoto
Story by Motomi Takahashi