Urushi, Mummies, and Lacquerware

Japanese lacquerware has been a form of decorative and fine art for centuries.

Japanese lacquerware. | Dennis Amith

Lacquerware is made by coating and recoating materials like bamboo and wood with the sap of the lacquer tree and has been used in prints, paintings, and a wide variety of objects — from religious statues to everyday bento boxes.  Lacquerware is an iconic symbol of Japanese arts and creativity.

Lacquer has been in use for hundreds of years. Over time, many different techniques and art forms have been developed to make full use of the material. Traditional lacquer comes from the sap of the Asian lacquer tree (toxicodendron vernicifluum), urushi, in Japanese. The sap of the tree produces an oil also found in poison ivy. The word “urushi” is said to come from two Japanese words — “uruosu”, which means “to moisten,” and “uruwashi” meaning beautiful. Before urushi was used as a lacquer, tips of spears were dipped in it to make them stronger and it was also discovered to be a durable adhesive. This became very useful as a decorative technique.


Lacquer. | ILO in Asia and the Pacific

sokushinbutsu practice, the process of self-mummification that begins while the person is still alive.. The area remains sacred in the Shugendō tradition to this day.

During the final stages of becoming sokushinbutsu, the monk drinks tea that is made from the sap of the urishi tree. This induces heavy vomiting, urination, and sweating. This leads to quick dehydration of the monk’s body which ideal for the self-mummification process. The poison from the urushi tree also aids in killing insects and maggots that may try to infest the body after death.

The urushi tree, the process of self-mummification, and Japanese lacquerware have a very weird connection when you really think about it.