Currently, 97% of raw urushi lacquer are imported from overseas and refined in Japan.
Post-War Japan focused forestry in Cedar and Cypress to support the rebuilding needs of the country. Economic growth in the 80s and 90s shifted the workforce to the metropolitans. Cheap, mass-produced plastic import goods took over the consumer market.
Aging population and the lack of young successors have also led urushi tree-farming dwindled into the current state.
Forest cultivation is a slow process. As a result, Japan-grown urushi, with its premium-quality but low yield, struggles to compete with low-cost imported lacquer.
Challenges & Efforts
In effort to revive and protect urushi craft trade, all restoration projects for Japan National Treasures and UNESCO WorldHeritage sites are required to use Japanese-grown urushi lacquer starting in 2018. The estimated annual demand for home-grown urushi will increase to 2.2 tons. The current supply is not meeting this demand.
Reliances on import will have to continue for decades. In recent years, we have experienced the fragility of global supply chain; in addition to the increase in production cost and the decrease in rural labor in China, sole reliance on import is not sustainable.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine
Why Japan-grown urushi?
Urushi trees are cultivated in various Asian countries. Urushi composition varies with different species. Japanese urushi is known for its high transparency, beautiful luster and durability due to its high content of urushiol.
Japanese cultivation and refinery artisanship: diligence, heritage intelligence, respect for nature and attention to details, all combined to give Japan home-grown urushi lacquer its reputation of exceptional quality.
Re-Start, from 3%
The 3% urushi lacquer consumed in Japan are from Iwate and Ibaraki region, north of Tokyo. Daigo, a small rural town in Ibaraki Prefecture, is one of the few remaining towns that is working hard to sustain and expand beyond the "3%". The handful of urushi foresters are charging forward to increase production with ambitious target every year. However, forestry is a natural, slow process that will take years for their efforts to become fruitful.
Daigo has the history and cultivation intelligence in place.
Urushi Forestry Masters are dedicated to teach and share their knowledge to the next generation cultivators.
The active ingredient of natural urushi tree sap is urushiol. This transparent substance is what makes Japanese lacquer uniquely durable, with high transparency and glossiness.
It is also the ingredient that gives you the "poison-oak" type of allergic reaction.
Raw urushi main composite:
Japan (Daigo Urushi)
Japan (other region)
Inactive ingredient of raw urushi includes small amount of gum (+/- 6%) and glycoprotein (less then 2%). Data provided by Ibaraki Prefecture Daigo Town
With the highest content in urushiol and lowest content in water, Daigo urushi cures to give high transparency, durability and beautiful luster finish.