Maki‑e pens

A Brief History of Maki‑e

The recently discovered Urushi ware in China and Hokkaido is 5,000–9,000 years old. It amazes me that people from that time period already knew how to extract Urushi from Urushi trees and to use vermillion to dye it red. Urushi was used to paint containers until 1,400 years ago, when people tired of the plainness of the solid color and began to paint decorative designs on Urushi surfaces. So far, there is no evidence of Chinese Maki‑e; we believe that Maki‑e was created by the Japanese about 1400 years ago.

Nara Period (646–794)

Apparently, there are very few records about Urushi and Maki‑e works throughout history. Our earliest visible record of Urushi works dates from the Nara Period. This is a collection kept in the Shosou‑in temple, which includes the oldest Togidashi Maki‑e, called Makkin‑ru. The Japanese admired everything imported from China and learnt a lot about Urushi from them during this period. They already knew how to make and apply gold powder and how to burnish the Urushi surface. Makkinru is regarded as the origin of Maki‑e.

Heian Period (794–1185)

In this period, there were more fragmentary pieces of information about Maki‑e; Raden (filigree) and Ikakeji (heavy powder sprinkled surface) are mentioned in literary works like Taketori‑monogatari (The tales of bamboo cutters), Ise‑monogatari (The tales of Ise). The designs of this period were mostly symmetrical or sequenced patterns. Some national treasures of Maki‑e from this period can be viewed at the Nara National Museum. Later in this period, designs became more “Japanese”, favoring natural scenery and landscapes. One of the most famous Maki‑e works of this time is Katawaguruma (wheels in the water), displayed at the National Tokyo Museum. New Maki‑e techniques innovated in this period were the usage of Ao‑kin (gold powder mixed with silver) and the simultaneous use of gradation techniques and Raden. Hira Maki‑e was also started in this period, but that technique was mostly developed in the Kamakura period.

Kamakura Period (1185–1333)

The Heian period was a world of aristocrats. Aesthetic sense was valued and beautiful Maki‑e was admired. Though the art form continued into the Kamakura age, people became more realistic, and society became a world of Samurai. The designs followed suit. The Kamakura style has some distinctive Maki‑e characteristics. The designs are more realistic due to improvements in technique. Designs also began to incorporate Ashide (painting Kanji related to the design’s theme, often camouflaged in the design itself.). In this period, Taka Maki‑e was also developed.

Muromachi Period (1332–1568)

The Muromachi Period was also dominated by the Samurai, but they were more aristocratic and interested in luxurious things. The famous Kinkakuji (gold‑plated temple) and Ginkakuji (silver‑plated temple) were built separately by The Third Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and The Eighth Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Muromachi culture was also heavily influenced by the Zen sect. During the Sung Dynasty (960‑1279) and Yuan Dynasty (1271‑1368) in China, Maki‑e designs became more colorful and technically complicated; facial expressions tended to be very exaggerated. The techniques that were extended to Shishiai Togidashi Maki‑e and Taka Maki‑e often used Sabi‑age (a gradation technique). Artisans liked to use all possible Maki-e techniques for each design.

It is important to know that the use of Nashiji (sprinkling gold powder on a surface to emulate the skin of a pear) was developed at this time. Also of note is that Kanagai and Kirigane (gold flakes cut and pasted onto designs) was used for the first time. The Muromachi period is an important period in Maki‑e history because the Maki‑e artisans had more new techniques and better materials at their disposal, and Maki‑e had become popular and was encouraged by the regime. There were two great Maki‑e families in the employ of the Shogun: the Koami Family and the Igarashi Family. Maki‑e artisans’ elevated social status and financial independence are a direct result of the success and popularity of these two Maki‑e shi families.

Momoyama Period (1568–1615)

The Momoyama Period encompasses Oda Nobunaga’s short regime and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s rise and fall. Only thirty years long, this period also saw the development of the art of Maki‑e, as illustrated with the building of the Kodaiji mausoleum at Mt. Higashi of Kyoto for Toyotomi Hiyoshi. At the same site is a Zushi temple for his wife. In this period, Maki‑e transitioned from complex Taka Maki‑e to simple black and gold Hira Maki‑e which decorated each pole and wall in both temples. Instead of landscapes, designs with flowers and birds such as “Autumn Flowers” were used. Momoyawa was a war‑torn era; its Samurai preferred their swords with paintings on their sheaths. These were simple techniques but looked sharp. However, just these simple Hira Maki‑e designs could not compete with colorful Taka Maki‑e, and eventually the craftsmen created new design ideas with E‑nashiji, using different grades of gold powders, sprinkled over the surface and burnished repeatedly. The second important innovation was “Katamigawari”: two designs separated by a straight line on the object. These simple Kodaiji Maki-e designs were born as the result of a reaction to Taka Maki‑e, which had once prevailed in the Muromachi Period.

Edo period (1615–1868)

In 1549, the Japanese received a rare chance to export Maki‑e to Europe through missionary work. Maki‑e fascinated Europeans at this time. Exports were booming and there were many factories working day and night to compete with the demand. Even when the Tokugawa Shogunate closed the country in 1639, only allowing Dutchmen to do business, Maki‑e fever was stronger than ever. From that time, Maki‑e designs were divided into two general categories: colorful Maki‑e and Raden, covering entire pieces called Namban Shikki, and Maki‑e that was not completely covered but left undecorated spaces, called Komoh Shikki. All of this Maki-e was mostly Hira Maki‑e, as it was easier to produce.

The biggest Maki‑e communities during the Edo period were located in Edo (Tokyo), Kyo (Kyoto) and Kanazawa in the Ishikawa prefecture. Kanazawa was then governed by the Maeda clan, called the Kaga Hyakuman‑goku Clan. The fifth feudal lord, Maeda Tsunanori (1643‑1724), made a complete set of craft materials and samples, called Hyakko-hisho, which also included many types of paper, wood, leather‑dyeing techniques, 30 Urushi coats of paint and different Maki‑e methods.

Since the Muromachi period, several major Maki‑e artists were hired by feudal lords. In the first Kohami, Docho was hired by Ashikaga Yoshimasa. His successors continued to work for the Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Shogunates; they put Maki‑e on all of the furniture, decorative and daily‑use items. Furumitsu Family was hired by Tokugawa Iemitsu, and Kajikawa Family were also hired by Togawa; they were well known for their Maki‑e on Inro, a pill container. Yamamoto Shunsei was famous for his Togidashi, and the Igarashi Family was famous in Kanazawa as the founder of Kaga Maki-e.

In this period, the economy improved and ordinary people could afford luxury items and liked colorful designs with gold or silver materials. Maki‑e techniques were greatly improved and began using a lot of expensive materials, but the designs lack freshness and artistic flavor. Towards the later years of this period, the quality of Maki‑e materials deteriorated and all Maki‑e was mass produced.

Meiji Period (1868–1912)

When the Tokugawa Shogunate crumbled in 1867 and power was surrendered to Emperor Meiji, Maki‑e and other traditional arts instantly lost their strong support; the whole country began to look towards Western culture and technology, neglecting their own traditional arts. Maki‑e artists were consequently laid off. Luckily, the Meiji Emperor was a very judicious leader and his government established a policy to export traditional handicraft items to Europe by participating in the Expos in London and Paris. This was very successful and opened Japan up to foreign exchange, dispatching students to Europe to learn western technologies, creating a strong foundation for modern Japan. The first Maki‑e fountain pen, made by Namiki, was sold to Dunhill, a high end jewelry store in London in 1925.

The art of Maki‑e was reevaluated by the government and several organizations were established to encourage its export, but they were soon compelled to close. In 1889, a Urushi department was established at the Tokyo Art School, led by Okakura Tenshin, considered the father of Japanese modern art. Students were able to learn Urushi/Maki‑e without being an apprentice to a master. The following year, a system was created to encourage artisans by awarding them with titles in return for creating work for the government. Rokkaku Shisui was one of the greatest artists taught by Tenshin; he was the master of Matsuda Gonroku in later years. In 1900, the government established a laboratory to test and study Urushi in Tokyo in order to improve the quality of Urushi. Materials used for Maki‑e, different sizes of gold and silver powders, have been greatly improved. Urushi refinement has also been improved, and it became possible to produce a variety of different colors. But the methods of Maki‑e were essentially the same as before; it was still very time consuming and repetitive work. Perhaps this is why Maki‑e does not attract young artisans in modern times.

Taisho Period (1912–1926)

Emperor Meiji began to lead the country when he was only sixteen years of age. Japan was modernized in 45 years, after it won wars against Russia and China. But his successor, Emperor Taisho, was in poor health throughout his life and left all national policy to his advisors. The government was democratic but no significant direction was taken for the arts until the Showa period.

Showa Period (1926–1989)

Japanese lost so much art work during WWII, including countless Maki‑e pens. While fewer and fewer Japanese people are interested in Maki‑e, many people are trying to work with the government to ensure the survival of the art. Tokyo Art School is now Tokyo Art University and has already produced many great artists since it was established. One significant step in this direction was the establishment of “Nihon Dento Kogeiten”, The Japanese Traditional Art & Craft Exhibition, in 1954. This was organized by a program called Living National Treasure in order to preserve and promote traditional arts.

Today, there are more than 100 major art exhibitions in Japan, and individual artist exhibitions are held at Major department stores in larger cities all over the country.

    The Urushi/Maki‑e related “National Treasures” until now are:
  • Takano Shozan (1889–1976) — Maki‑e in 1955
  • Matsuda Gonroku (1896–1986) — Maki‑e in 1955
  • Otomaru Kodo (1898–1997) — *Choshitsu in 1955
  • Mae Taiho (1890–1977) — **Chinkin in 1955
  • Isoi Joshin (1883–1964) — ***Kinma in 1956
  • Akai Yusai (1906–1984) — ****Kyushitsu in 1974
  • Masumura Mashiki (1910–1996) — Kyushitsu in 1978
  • Oba Shogyo (1916– ) — Maki‑e in 1982
  • Terai Naoji (1912–1998) — Maki‑e in 1985
  • Isoi Masami (1926– ) — Kinma in 1985
  • Taguchi Yoshikuni (1924–1998) — Maki‑e in 1989
  • Shioda Keishiro (1926– ) — Kyushitsu in 1995
  • Kitamura Shosai (1938– ) — *****Raden in 1999
  • Mae Fumio (1940– ) — Chinkin in 1999
*Chositsu: Painted with many layers of Urushi and carved designs ** Chinkin: Instead of drawing lines, the Urushi surface is carved and those lines are filled with sticky Urushi and gold foil. ***Kinma: Different colors of Urushi drawn and carved on the Urushi surface. ****Kyushitsu: The process from the base layer to the final coatings of Urushi.

Takano Shozan competed with Matsuda Gonroku as students at Tokyo Art School, and both later left tremendous art treasures to their followers. The most famous student of Matsuda Gonroku is a National Treasure, Oba Shogyo, whose Maki‑e is probably the most valuable in the community today, worth more than US $135,000 per square foot. Other famous followers of Matsuda Gonroku include Terai Naoji, Taguchi Yoshikuni, and younger generations of artists such as Sasaki Ei (1934‑1984), Kazumi Murose (1950‑ ), etc.

Heisei Period (1989‑ )

Maki‑e was born in the age of Nara, called Makkinru, as the origin of Togidashi Maki‑e. In the Heian period, Raden and Ikakeji were developed as additional techniques of Maki‑e. Hira Maki‑e was also created. In the Kamakura period, Taka Maki‑e was created, and Maki‑e began to have a dimensional effect. The Maki‑e designs became more colorful; Shishiai Togidashi Maki‑e was adopted and new techniques of powder sprinkling also became popular. The Japanese started conducting business with foreign countries; Maki‑e was also exported through missionary groups. Emperor Meiji encouraged people to exhibit at Expos in Europe and Maki‑e works were well‑received by westerners. Maki‑e was done on many different kinds of objects and was housed in many major museums in Europe and America. The Japanese government promoted traditional arts by holding large-scale exhibitions to show artists’ work to the public. Nonetheless, the number of Maki‑e artists is actually dwindling; there are just a few hundred nationwide in Japan today, down from 20,000 at its heyday in the Edo period. Since the demand for restoring Maki‑e in museums is so high, the government helps train many Maki‑e shi in this field. Today’s quality of materials for Maki‑e is much higher than before and new technology also helps Maki‑e artists in many ways, yet the art fails to attract young people. A bright idea is needed to keep this art alive.

Bernard Lyn