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Posts Tagged ‘lacquerware’

Since the fire at Shuri castle / palace / gusuku this past October, I have been reading a lot about the site; about the process leading up to its postwar restoration in 1992; about the events that have been held there since 1992, including the revivals and reenactments of various forms of court ceremonies and entertainments; and about the meaning, significance, and character of the site for people before and after the tragic October 31, 2019 fire.

The royal throne, imperial plaques (扁額), and decorated pillars produced by Maeda, or under his instruction, in the upper throne room (大庫理, ufugui) of the restored royal palace at Shuri. All lost in the 2019 fire. Photo my own, Sept 2016.

In the process, I have enjoyed learning about some of the people who played a prominent role in these processes. Outside of the field of Okinawan art, I would imagine Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 isn’t a name very many people are familiar with, at all; probably not even within Okinawa, except among those within particular circles. But Maeda was perhaps the leading lacquerware master involved in the restoration work, creating reproductions of the ornate red-lacquered, gilded royal throne (with mother-of-pearl inlay); red-lacquered and gilded plaques which hung over the throne, bearing the calligraphy of Qing emperors, as well as plaques hanging over many of the castle’s gates; and the decoration of the pillars framing the throne, encircled with multicolored and gilded dragons; among many other objects.

Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 was born in 1936 in the village of Ôgimi, in the Yanbaru/Kunigami area of Okinawa Island. A small village near the northern end of the island, Ôgimi is today home to just over 3,000 people, and is famous for its shikuwasa (a fruit related to the lime), its kijumunaa (local spirits somewhat akin to leprechauns or menehune), and perhaps the highest life expectancy in the world, with a considerable number of residents over one hundred years old.

Above: Maeda on Oct 31, 2019. Image from the Okinawa Times.

Maeda would have been 14 when the University of the Ryukyus was established, in 1950, right atop the ruins of Shuri castle (destroyed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, along with much of the rest of the island). He later attended that university and graduated with a degree from the fine arts section (美術工芸科). His teacher Adaniya Masayoshi 安谷屋正義 (recognized now if not back then as one of the *giants* in early postwar Okinawan painting) then introduced him to a job as a designer in a lacquerware company. Five years later, he showed his works for the first time in a large lacquerwares exhibition, and reportedly made a big impact. In 1968, he opened his own workshop, the Maeda Shikki Atorie 前田漆器アトリエ (Maeda Lacquerwares Atelier).

At some point, he was later designated by the prefecture a “holder of Intangible Cultural Heritage” 県指定無形文化財保持者 – a title granted to those who are exceptional masters of particular traditional cultural techniques, skills, and knowledge. He also came to serve as an advisor to the prefecture on matters of traditional arts, and taught courses as a lecturer at both the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts 沖縄県立芸術大学 (Okinawa geidai) and Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai). It is difficult, he has said, however, to maintain and pass down a tradition of the most expertly refined skills, and of producing the highest-quality works, when popular conception is of your works as “souvenirs.” From the 1950s or so onward (if not in the prewar period as well), Ryukyuan lacquerwares began with increasing rapidity to be produced ever more cheaply, and ever increasingly with styles or motifs catering to a tourist or export market. Americans, as well as Japanese tourists and tourists from elsewhere in East Asia, wanted lacquerwares they could buy as affordable and stereotypically “tropical” or “Okinawan” souvenirs. As many lacquerware makers began to regularly cut corners and to use new techniques to save money, thus producing works they could afford to sell for less, the traditional techniques of how to produce the finest objects began to be lost; Maeda worked to revive that tradition by studying in mainland Japan and bringing such techniques, knowledge, and skill back to Okinawa – such as the skill to select the best part of the turbo shell, and to slice it as thinly as 0.07 mm, to produce the most delicately colorful and iridescent mother-of-pearl inlay.

When he was in his 50s (in the 1980s), he proposed to his partner by saying “let us rebuild Shuri castle together” (一緒に首里城を造ろう),1 which I think is really kind of beautiful, and says something about how engaged and supportive she must have been. Her name is 栄, and I want to be able to talk about her here by name, at the very least, rather than only calling her “his wife.” But I sadly have not yet come across anything which indicates how she pronounces her name. I’ve known some men named 栄, and they pronounced it “Sakae.” Is she Sakae-san? Or is it perhaps Yô-san? Clearly, she deserves profound recognition as well.

The “Shurei no kuni” 守禮之邦 (“Land of Propriety”) plaque hanging over the famous Shureimon near the entrance to Shuri castle is also one of Maeda’s works. Photo my own, Jan 2020.

In a 2013 interview, Maeda said he had discussed with his wife that he would retire at age 90. What will I do when I am 90 and weak? he says he asked her, to which she responded, it’s better to think of that once you turn 90.2

Learning of the fire on Oct 31, 2019 from his hospital bed, Maeda spoke of his hope to leave the hospital soon, after which he would immediately jump back into work reconstructing what was lost. “It’s not over” (「そしたら、すぐにでも復元に飛んでいきたい。まだ、おしまいじゃない」) the Okinawa Times quoted him as saying. His wife Sakae (or Yô?) added, “This is this man’s good point. He can’t help but to keep going.” (「それがこの人のいいところ。また頑張るしかないね」)1

Sadly, Maeda passed away a few month later, on Jan 14, 2020, at the age of 83. He lived to see the destruction of all those priceless lacquerwares in the castle fire, along with many produced in the time of the kingdom, but not to return to his workbench, or to the palace site to share his wisdom, his knowledge, his masterful skill to recreate what has once again been lost. But he will be remembered. If the name Maeda Kōin does not already appear in textbooks, I hope that it will. I most certainly will talk about him if and when I ever get to teach a course on Okinawan art history; Heritage & Tradition; or the like.

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1. 「「まだ、おしまいじゃない」 首里城の玉座制作の漆芸家 落胆の涙を拭い前向く」, Okinawa Times, 1 Nov 2019.
2. 「90歳までは仕事をして、90歳になったら遊ぼうねと、妻と話をしています。足腰も弱る90歳で何をするかと僕が聞くと、妻は『90になった時に考えればいいさぁ』。」“Shitsugei Maeda Kōin-san: Shurijō ni inochi wo fukikonda shitsugei sakka” 漆芸前田孝允:首里城にいのちを吹き込んだ漆芸作家, ”Shuri: Ryūkyū no miyako wo aruku” 首里:琉球の都をあるく, Momoto special issue 別冊モモト, Itoman: Tōyō kikaku (2013/8), 28.

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Now that I’ve posted about that really fantastic last day in Okinawa, let me jump back to our Saturday of field trips. Between the Ryukyumura theme park, and Ocean Expo Park, we stopped for lunch at a rest stop sort of place on the side of the highway. Run by the Okinawan chain of souvenir sweets shops called Okashi Goten (“Sweets Palace”), the place included a lunch buffet restaurant, and large souvenir shop. Though the official field trip schedule gave us a woefully limited time at each actual stop, they gave us a whole hour and a half for lunch. I noticed signs indicating some kind of museum across the street, so when I finished eating I went and took a look.

Feels a bit bizarre to find a museum of any sort just on the side of the highway in the middle of, well, not exactly nowhere, but… Yet, as it turns out, there is some sense to it after all. The Okinawa rekishi minzoku shiryôkan, or Okinawa Museum of History and Folklore, which just opened in summer 2013, is a private venture showing off the personal collection of the CEO of Okashi Goten. So, if you want to see the museum, you’re going to end up at the rest stop for lunch and/or souvenirs; and, if you’re stopping at the rest stop as we were as part of a bus tour, you just might take a moment to check out the museum, as I did.

Sadly, the museum doesn’t allow any photos inside, but boy was it incredible. I’m not sure if there’s any one item, to be honest, which is all that photo-worthy, but I wish I even just had a picture of the rooms themselves, filled with objects. The sheer number of things came as quite a surprise, as I walked into this small random building on the side of the highway way out in Yanbaru. The collection includes quite a number of ceramics, lacquerwares, farming and fishing implements, and other “folklife” and “folk craft”/decorative arts sort of objects. Plus, a whole set of displays of papier-mache figures, each meticulously dressed in garments made from real bingata and the like, and made up otherwise – hair, props, etc., depicting various aspects of Okinawan history and folk life, from royal processions to sacred rituals.

Generally, you can walk around the place freely, on your own. But one of the staff was kind enough to chat with me, and walk me through the exhibits. She explained that all of this is the personal collections of the Okashi Goten CEO, who established the museum and decided to share his collection with the public out of concern that the younger generation simply isn’t taught enough, and thus doesn’t know enough, about their own history. The Okinawan language (“hôgen“), so harshly suppressed in the early 20th century, was apparently strongly discouraged within the classroom even as late as the early 1970s, under the US Occupation, and as a result, few still speak it well; further, Okinawan history, art history, etc. simply aren’t taught in the public schools. My tour guide, probably in her 60s or so, born and raised in Yanbaru going back many generations, expressed her own deep personal concerns for these things, and her own personal embarrassment that she herself knew so little about any of this before working at the museum.

She eagerly pointed out notable works of ceramics, lacquerware, and the like, and explained that many of the works in the collection are by Living National Treasures such as Kinjô Jirô (金城次郎) or otherwise famous or prominent Okinawan artists such as Kobashigawa Genkei (小橋川源慶), Seiji (小橋川清次), and Isamu (小橋川勇), and Ômine Jissei (大嶺實清), and that the collection in fact includes more numerous or better works of various types than even the Prefectural Museum. If you’re into Okinawan ceramics, lacquerware, and the like, I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

An Okinawan lacquerware stand, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2009. I wonder how light this is; I wonder what wood it’s made from.

I also learned that traditional Okinawan lacquerware, being made from the wood of the deigo tree, rather than other woods used in Japan, is amazingly lightweight. All lacquerware is surprisingly lightweight, if you’re not used to it, but this stuff especially so. This is the first I’ve heard of deigo wood being used for anything; since so much of Okinawan arts tends to seem, at least initially, on the surface, to be simply variations on Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Southeast Asian forms, I quite like that they should use something like deigo wood, adding considerably to the distinctiveness of the art, and the object. It reminds me of how all sorts of things are made from koa wood in Hawaii, infusing them with a distinctively Hawaiian character even if the form may not be. Much of the furnishings of ʻIolani Palace, though made in Germany in purely European styles, is made of koa, making the palace itself – its floors, its staircase bannisters – something that feels decidedly distinctively Hawaiian. Similarly, with the Okinawan lacquerwares. Sadly, though I didn’t quite catch the reason why, in more recent times (I can’t remember if she said since the fall of the kingdom in the 1870s, or if she said since 1945), they don’t use deigo anymore, and instead use banyan tree wood (gajumaru), which at least is also a distinctively Okinawan material.

I know this doesn’t make for the most informative blog post… but, you can see more about this small museum at their blog. Visiting such a place really makes one wonder what other treasures, collections, museums might exist, tucked away in remote parts. Even within Okinawa alone, I just came across the website for yet another similar architecture + folkcrafts museum / theme park, Ryukyu Kingdom Castletown (Ryûkyû ôkoku jôkamachi), in Nanjô City. Time to add that to my list of places to visit next time I’m in Okinawa…

All photos my own.

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