Skip to content
BY-NC-ND 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access May 12, 2018

Japan: The Earliest Evidence of Complex Technology for Creating Durable Coloured Goods

  • Naoko Matsumoto EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Archaeology


The invention of lacquer technology is significant in history as the first evidence of the use of an organic substance in creating durable coloured objects. By focusing on the evidence from the Jomon Period, Japan, this article clarifies the nature of complex technology and knowledge required for lacquer production, presents how lacquer technology enhanced our creative ability, and discusses its significance in human history. Lacquer technology was invented in the course of increasing human-plant interaction in the warming climate of the early Holocene. Personal ornaments coated with red lacquer are the most conspicuous throughout the Jomon Period from the beginning of lacquer technology. Strong attention to colour and intensive application on personal ornaments indicate that the creation of symbolic artefacts in social context was at the core of Jomon lacquer technology.


Berlin, B. & Kay, P. (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their universality and Evolution. California: University of California Press.Search in Google Scholar

Bonjean, D., Vanbrabant, Y., Abrams, G., Pirson, S., Burlet, C., Di Modica, K., Otte, M., Auwera, J.V., Golitko, M., McMillan, R., & Goemaere, E. (2015). A new Cambrian black pigment used during the late Middle Palaeolithic discovered at Scladina Cave (Andenne, Belgium). Journal of Archaeological Science 55, 253-265.10.1016/j.jas.2014.11.040Search in Google Scholar

Brown, D. E. (1991). Human Universals. New York City: McGraw-Hill.Search in Google Scholar

Chiba, T. (2014). Lacquerwork techniques found in the Shimo-yakebe site. Bulletin of the National Museum of Japanese History 187, 217-233. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Cultural Relics Archaeological Institute in Zhejiang Province, Xiaoshan Museum (2004). Kuahuqiao. Beijin: Wenwu Publishing House. (in Chinese)Search in Google Scholar

Epstein, W.L., Byers, V.S., & Baer, H. (1981). Induction of persistent tolerance to urushiol in humans. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 68(1), 20-25.10.1016/0091-6749(81)90118-4Search in Google Scholar

Epstein, W.L. (1987). The poison ivy picker of Pennypack Park: the continuing saga of poison ivy. Journal of Investigatove Dermatology 88(suppl 3), 7-11.10.1038/jid.1987.3Search in Google Scholar

Fisher, A.A. (1996). Poison ivy/oak/sumac. Part II: specific features. Cutis 58, 22-24.Search in Google Scholar

Gladman, A.C. (2006). Toxicodendron dermatitis: Poison ivy, oak, and sumac. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 17, 120-128.10.1580/PR31-05.1Search in Google Scholar

Habu, J. (2004). Ancient Jomon of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University PressSearch in Google Scholar

Habu, J. (2014). Post-pleistocene transformations of hunter-gatherers in East Asia. In V. Cummings, P. Jordan, & M. Zvelebil (Eds.), Oxford handbook of the archaeology and anthropology of hunter-gatherers (pp. 507-520). Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199551224.013.043Search in Google Scholar

Hachinohe City Board of Education (2002). Korekawanakai Site 1. Hachinohe: Hachinohe City Board of Education. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Hayden, B. (1995). Pathways to power: principles for creating socioeconomic inequalities. In Price, T.D. and Feinman, G.M. (Eds.), Foundations of Social Inequality (pp. 15-86). New York: Plenum.Search in Google Scholar

Imamura, K. (1996). Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on Insular East Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.Search in Google Scholar

Iwatsuki, K., Boufford, D.E. & Ohba, H. (1999). Flora of Japan, vol. IIc. Tokyo: Kodansha.Search in Google Scholar

Jiang, L. (2013). The Kuahuqiao site and culture. In A.P. Underhill (Ed.), A Companion to Chinese Archaeology (pp. 537-554). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.Search in Google Scholar

Kawai, K., Nakagawa, M., Kawai, K., Liew, F.M., & Yasuno, H. (1991). Hyposensitization to urushiol among Japanese lacquer craftsmen: results of patch tests on students learning the art of lacquerware. Contact Dermatitis 25(5), 290-295.10.1111/j.1600-0536.1991.tb01876.xSearch in Google Scholar

Kawasaki, T. (2005). Chugoku tohoku, Enkaishu karamita Jomon tama seihin (Jomon stone ornaments seen from northeastern China and Primorski). Paper presented at the symposium: Jomon Culture in Northeastern Asia. ( (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Kay, P., Berlin, B., & William, M. (1991). Biocultural implications of systems of color naming. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 1(1), 12-25.10.1525/jlin.1991.1.1.12Search in Google Scholar

Kudo, Y. (2017). Jomon jidai no utushi bunka: Saikin no futatsu no kenkyu doko (Urushi culture in the Jomon Period: Two recent research trend). In National Museum of Japanese History (Ed.), The Wonders of URUSHI: 12,000-Year History of People and Lacquer in Japan (pp. 240-247). Sakura: National Museum of Japanese History. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Kudo, Y. & Yotsuyanagi, K. (2015). Radiocarbon dating of the urushi-lacquered combs of the Jomon period excavated from the Mibiki site, Ishikawa Prefecture, and the Torihama shell midden, Fukui Prefecture, Japan. Japanese Journal of Historical Botany 23(2), 55-58. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Li, L. (2011). China’s Cultural Relics (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Matsuda, G. (2001). Urushi no hanashi (Story of Japanese lacquer). Tokyo: Iwanami press. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Matsumoto, N. & Habu, J. (2018). Subsistence, sedentism, and social complexity among Jomon hunter-gatherers of Japanese Archipelago. In J. Habu, P.V. Lape & J.W. Olsen (Eds.), Handbook of East and Southeast Asian Archaeology (pp.437-450). New York: Springer.Search in Google Scholar

Minamikayabe-cho Maizobunkazai Chosadan (Investigating Committee of Buried Cultural Properties in Minamikayabe town) (2002). Kakinoshima B Iseki (Kakinoshima B site). Hakodate: Minamikayabe Town Board of Education. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Morriss-Kay, G.M. (2010). The evolution of human artistic creativity. Journal of Anatomy. 216(2), 158-176. Published online 2009 Nov 6. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2009.01160.xSearch in Google Scholar

Naganuma, T. (1998). Kyusekkijidai no sekishoku ganryo (Red pigments in the Palaeolithic Period). Kokogaku Journal 438, 4-9. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Nagashima, M. (1996). Urushi karamita Jomon yayoi jidai (Jomon and Yayoi Periods as seen from urushi). Kokogaku Journal 401, ** (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Nagashima, M. (2002). Kakinoshima B iseki dokobo shutsudo urushiyo soshokuhin to sekishoku ganryo ni tsuite (On the lacquered ornaments and red pigments from a pit burial at Kakinoshima B site). In Minamikayabe-cho Maizobunkazai Chosadan (Ed.), Kakinoshima B Iseki (Kakinoshima B site). Hakodate: Minamikayabe Town Board of Education. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Nagashima, M. (2014). Shimo-Yakebe iseki no urushi kankei shiryo kara wakarukoto (What we know from urushi-related materials at Shimo-Yakebe site). In Y. Kudo and National Museum of Japanese History (Eds.), New Perspectives on the Plant Use of Jomon People (pp. 138-157). Tokyo: Shinsensha, (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Nagashima, M. & Kobayashi, K. (2007). Urushi shiryo no nendai wo hakaru (Dating lacquered materials). Rekihaku 143. (in Japanese) ( in Google Scholar

Nakamura, S. (Ed.). (2010). Sekkosho yoyou denrasan iseki no gakusaiteki sogo kenkyu (Cross disciplinary synthetic research of Tianluoshan site, Yuyou, Zhejiang province). Kanazawa: Kanazawa University. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

National Museum of Japanese History (Ed.). (2017). The Wonders of URUSHI: 12,000-Year History of People and Lacquer in Japan. Sakura: National Museum of Japanese History. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Noshiro, S. & Sasaki, Y. (2006). Shimo-yakebe iseki kara shutsudo shita urushi mokuzai (urushi wood excavated from Shimo-yakebe site). In Shimo-yakabe iseki chosadan (Ed.), Shimo-yakebe Iseki I (Shimo-yakebe site I). Higashimurayama: Higashimurayama-shi Iseki Chosa-kai. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Noshiro, S. & Suzuki, M. (2004). Rhus verniciflua Stokes grew in Japan since the Early Jomon Period. Japanese Journal of Historical Botany 12, 3-11. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Noshiro, S., Suzuki, M., & Sasaki, Y. (2007). Importance of Rhus vernicilua Stokes (lacquer tree) in prehistoric periods in Japan, deduced from identification of its fossil woods. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 16, 405-411. (in Japanese)10.1007/s00334-006-0058-6Search in Google Scholar

Okada, F. (1997). Paipujo bengara ryushi no fukugen (Reconstruction of tubular red oxide). Proceedings of the 14th conference of Japan Society for Scientific Studies on Cultural Properties. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Okamura, M. (2010). Nihon no Urushi (Lacquer in Japan). Doseisha, Tokyo. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Watts, I. (2010). The pigments from Pinnacle Point cave 13B, Western Cape, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution 59, 392-411.10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.07.006Search in Google Scholar

Roebroeks, W., Sier, M.J., Nielsen, T.K., De Loecker, D., Parésb, J.M., Arps, C.E.S., & Mücher, H.J. (2012). Use of red ochre by early Neanderthals. PNAS 109(6), 1889-1894.10.1073/pnas.1112261109Search in Google Scholar

Suzuki, M., Noshiro, S., Kobayashi, K., Kudo, Y., Ajimoto, M., & Amitani, K. (2012). Radiocarbon dating of an excavated wood sample of Toxicodendron vernici!uum from the Torihama Shell Midden site, Fukui Prefecture. Japanese Journal of Historical Botany 21(2), 67-71. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Suzuki, M., Noshiro, S., Tanaka, T., Kobayashi, K., Wang, Y., Liu, J., & Sheng Y. (2014). Origin nd Urushi (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) in the Neolithic Jomon Period of Japan. Bulletin of the National Museum of Japanese History vol.187, 49-70. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Uwaya, S. (Ed.). (2003). Karinba 3 Site. Eniwa: Eniwa City Board of Education. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Uwaya, S. & Kimura, H. (2016). Karinba Site as the Historic Site Designated by the National Government and Kashiwagi B Site: From the stone club group to the scarlet lacquered sash group during the late stage of the Jomon period. Tokyo: Doseisha. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Wattenwyl, A.V. & Zollinger, H. (1979). Color-term salience and neurophysiology of color vision. American Anthropologist 81(2), 279-288.10.1525/aa.1979.81.2.02a00020Search in Google Scholar

Yotsuyanagi, K. (2009). Urushi no bunkashi (Cultural history of Japanese lacquer). Tokyo: Iwanami Press. (in Japanese)Search in Google Scholar

Received: 2017-07-12
Accepted: 2018-01-15
Published Online: 2018-05-12

© 2018

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.

Downloaded on 10.12.2023 from
Scroll to top button