Lacquer Forms : Modern Negoro: Lacquer Works by Jihei Murase


The lacquerwork of Jihei Murase embodies the essence of formative art.  It represents not merely the ‘beauty of functionality’ that settles comfortably into the hand, but is simultaneously a refined sculpture in its own right.  Jihei is the third generation of the Murase family to adopt the name, following his father, Jihei II, who also worked in this field while his mother was involved in creating the wooden bases for lacquerware. For generations the family has venerated the Imperial Prince, Koretaka (844-897) as their ancestral god. He was responsible for the development of numerous woodworking skills while living as a hermit.  For Jihei, lacquerwork begins with an encounter with the wood; he loves and is charmed by timber, devoting all his energies into transforming it into beautiful forms. 

First he draws up a plan consisting of concisely applied lines, then he approaches the soul of the wood.  Using a lathe that rotates at tremendous speed, he applies chisels he forged himself; wood shavings filling the air as a piece of sculpture is born before our eyes—a flask resembling a woman’s torso, a small container reminiscent of a persimmon, or a tea caddy with concentric lines engraved in it every millimeter.  The lid of the tea caddy is a perfect fit.  Surrounded by wood shavings and covered in aromatic wood dust, Jihei strives to achieve something using the golden rule engraved on his heart.  Next he uses a soft brush to build up numerous coats of natural urushi lacquer aiming to recreate an image of the delicate world embodied by the ritual utensils produced during the Heian period (794-1185).  A pedestaled table has a delicate form and was employed to make offerings to the gods.  A flask has a relaxed grace of form and was used to contain celebratory sake.  Just one of these objects, placed in a suitable place, has the power to purify the surrounding atmosphere.  They possess a tension that Jihei aims to create through the application of sacred urushi lacquer. 


Negoro lacquer originated in the Negoroji Temple, which was built during the Heian period (794-1185).  The lacquer utensils used by the Zen priests in their daily lives gradually became worn and scratched, exposing the black lacquer that had been applied beneath the vermillion topcoat, creating a simple, subdued effect over the years.  It seems strange that despite the refinement of Jihei’s lacquer works, they should display a tone reminiscent of negoro ware, which is the exact opposite.  This is due to the fact that from the moment that people see and use his work, their hearts are captured and they become enraptured with it.  They feel as if they had been touching it for a long time, experiencing feelings of nostalgia.  The works possess a sense of eternity, leading people to want to always keep them close to hand until the time comes to pass them down to their children.  It is the essence of the work created by the rugged, yet conscientious, woodworker, lacquerer and sometimes blacksmith, Jihei Murase, that we yearn to venerate. 

Shoko Aono

Press release

Ippodo gallery is pleased to hold an exhibition of lacquer works by Jihei Murase III. Murase is a third-generation lacquerware artist, with the Murase family traditions dating back to the Edo period (1603-1868). Seeking inspiration for the original work of his grandfather honoring the tea ceremony, the objects are created in the style of Negoro, named for the 12thcentury temple which originated the design.  The Negoro design is a simple, Zen, modest style, where black reveals itself through vermillion over time, and Murase’s work is well known for its expertise in this longstanding tradition. Beyond reverence for the past, the works speak to the changing tides of art and lifestyle in modern society. Delving into form and meaning, works intermingle value of nature, tradition, and harmony in innovation, ultimately challenging conventional tea ceremony with precision and artistry. Tea caddies, scoops, water jars, vases, vessels and trays are all on display at Ippodo Gallery, with 30 items in all. 


Whether in vermillion red, silver or black, Murase emphasizes the harmony in form. Although all works can be used in traditional tea ceremony, Murase is foremost a sculptor, paying careful attention to his golden rule of shape down to minutia. Murase’s tea wares pays reverence to contemporary Mingei style. Translated as the beauty of functional things, Mingei is known as the art of daily life. Viewable as art objects, they are intertwined with the everyday.


The Murase family perfected their technique over the centuries for top clientele among dilettantes and top restauranteurs. Rosanjin Kitaoji (1883-1959) loved Murase’s lacquerware, and was celebrated in Mingei as a chef, potter as well and painter.  The Murase family was originally from Nagoya, tea-ceremony was a daily occurrence, necessitating the precision and artistry of top quality objects. In 1952, the family moved to Tokyo and produced tea ceremony utensils under the direction of the tea master Soho Suzuki, connecting with tea ceremony aficionados Jian Matsunaga and Fujio Koyama. Their informal monthly tea ceremony in Tokyo has now endured for almost six decades.


Murase works with a very delicate, sharp chisel he uniquely handcrafts to align the lid and body of his pieces perfectly. The effect is a smooth finish, and a thinned and precise base. For more traditional symmetrical items, he selects trees grown in straight, severe environments. Murase works with timber dried over a hundred years, prized for its delicate, thin grooves. The result is a subtlety shaped by a century of preparation, effortless in its smooth and seamless serenity. Items are hatched from a single slice of wood, a strong and high-quality type called keyaki (or zelcova). Keyaki is naturally curved, thus preserving the line and texture for a natural form. The technique has been perfected since Murase’s father began the process.

Lacquer is secondary, intended only to coat form. Murase repeatedly coats the items in black so as not to distract from nature’s creation. The silver occasionally oxidizes over time, growing cooler over time. 
Two layers coat container inside the tea container and on the outside cover, demonstrating dedicated and beautiful craftsmanship, even as the mastery is understated. 


Ippodo Gallery continues its mission to present works in harmony with the natural world. As old-growth forests gradually disappear, incorporating precious woods optimizes nature, and pays homage to the natural splendor of Japan.

Installation Views