Close Encounters with the Unknown

When I was writing an article about KARAFURU, I ended up doing a lot of research on the Japanese lacquer art technique known as maki-e, which I really didn’t know much about. Like most Japanese people, I only knew what it was and roughly how it was made.

Through this research, I encountered many fascinating stories and facts about this 1200 year-old art form (which I plan to write more about in the future). But today, I want to share a single picture that I stumbled upon as I was clicking through the ocean of maki-e images provided by Google image search.

Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s start with that. It’s from a site featuring a “Virtual Collection of Asian Masterpieces.” ( )

At first glance, I thought it was just another piece of fancy maki-e decorated furniture, such as a byobu-type folding screen. But then I realized the size was a little too small to be a typical folding screen. Then, when I finally had my eyes focused on the center image, I couldn’t help but say, “Holy…”

Three unique characteristics – but one that is obvious

I double-checked the work’s date and place of origin. Yep, it did read ‘Japan, 16th-17th century AD.’ Yet it contained some design elements that were not familiar to Japanese art at that time. These included geometric patterns at the edges and an elaborate use of mother-of-pearl inlay.

The botanical images on both doors are clearly of Japanese origin, as is the maki-e technique used to paint them. What struck me the most was the central figure. Not only does the guy not look like a Japanese person of the time period (or of today, for that matter), the medium used to create the image appears to be oil paint, which did not exist in Japan at that time.

Tanegashima – Where God met gold lacquer

So how did this work come about? Here we have a Japanese decorative craft technique mixed with an oil painting of Christian imagery. Traditions from opposite ends of the world coming together like this 500 years ago? It’s a marriage that seems impossible in many ways, yet it looks absolutely fantastic.

I managed to recall some of the history I learned in middle school (which alone is miraculous…). Around the time of this painting there was a remarkable event in Japan. Portuguese missionaries washed ashore on the Island of Tanegashima and introduced two pillars of Western Civilization – guns and the Bible.

It is said that the Jesuit missionaries who came to Japan carefully researched the lifestyle and culture of the local population. This naturally brought them in contact with beautiful pieces of traditional Japanese craft. And they fell in love with it.

Having their socks knocked off by the universal refinement of the maki-e technique, the Portuguese wanted to take it back to Europe. Merchants thought they could sell it while the missionaries believed it was art worthy of using to praise the Lord.

The 16th Century Japan art boom in Europe

Until Japan closed itself off to the world in 1633 as part of its ‘sakoku’ (chained country) policy, there was a fifty-some year period when Japanese lacquer-ware was all the rage in Europe.

And the evidence backs me up. The fact is that a lot Japanese artifacts still reside in Europe. Still highly treasured, they can be found in the collections of wealthy families, churches and a number of museums.

The daily life of a crafts person in 1543

More than the political history of this era, I’m fascinated by how this actual work came to be commissioned and how the crafts people were able to cooperate in realizing such a magnificent piece of art.

Let’s just dive in and imagine this scene for a moment. Picture a quiet day at a village somewhere in Japan. People are just going about their daily tasks – talking and laughing, sitting in their usual spots. Suddenly, there is a visitor at the gate. People look over to see the local government officer, a man who occasionally provides them with purveying jobs. But today, he brought with him a stranger, a tall man with pale skin and light-colored hair. A man dressed like nobody has ever seen before.

Slowly, they figure out that the mystery man is a guest from a foreign country. He likes the lacquer-ware they are famous for and wants to order a piece.

It turns out that he’s a Portuguese missionary. The man tries his best to communicate with the Japanese craftsmen in his broken Japanese. He attempts to express his admiration for their work and communicate the subject matter and patterns that he has in mind – ones entirely foreign to the traditional artists. And now imagine the looks on the faces of the crafts people. After moving from startled to confused, the men slowly start to comprehend the challenge placed upon them by the strange-looking foreigner.

To get the work finished in the manner it was ordered, there must have been a number of interesting obstacles. Now let’s envision the unveiling. The carpenters proudly present the piece to the anxious client for the first time.

Surrounded by the craftsmen, the missionary opens the package and finds this breathtaking work of art.

Maki-e continues to impress

At the time this piece was created, the maki-e tradition was already over 500 years old. It was not some new technique that struck the Portuguese speechless. And here it is taking my breath away almost 500 years later.

As this tradition continues, I have no doubt that people 500 years from now will be just as amazed by the maki-e works being crafted today.