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Master of Ryukyu Laquerware keeps tradition alive

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-10-18

Koin Maeda is one of Okinawa's most talented and well respected traditional craft makers. Born in 1936, Maeda's love for art began as a child. Surrounded by nature in his hometown of Ogimi Village, located in the countryside of northern Okinawa, he gradually became aware of the connection between art and nature. It was in University however, that Maeda discovered his real passion - the art of making Ryukyu Lacquerware. His patience, skill, and dedication have helped him to become a renowned artist.

Maeda, who is now in his fourth decade of making Ryukyu Lacquerware, is currently holding an exhibition at the Urasoe City Art Museum. He has been recognized with numerous awards over his forty year career. His first exhibition in Okinawa was in 1962, and he was quickly acclaimed as one of Japan's most talented, young artists. He won the prestigious "Okinawa Arts Exhibition Award" in 1965, and again in 1966. The following year he became president of the Okinawa Lacquerware Association, and he began teaching at the Ryukyu University in 1968. He was the recipient of the "Okinawa Times Arts Award" in 1969, which he won again in 1980. He has been awarded several times by both the prefecture and national government, and he holds the title of "Okinawa Prefecture Intangible Cultural Asset". His lacquerware has been seen at twenty seven different exhibitions. He performed the work for reconstruction of the king's throne at Shuri Castle. One of his fine lacquerware pieces was presented to Japan's royal family as a gift in 1987. He has also taught numerous students over the years, continuing his teaching career at the Tokyo Arts University and the Okinawa Prefecture Arts University.

Lacquerware was originally brought to Okinawa from China during the 15th century. It was then developed under the royal administration for tributary payments to China and for special gifts to mainland Japan during the Ryukyu Dynasty.

There are many different techniques to lacquerware, which all begin with the juice from the "Urushi" tree to make the shiny black or red colored lacquer. "Raden" uses mother-of-pearl from the turban and abalone shell to create beautiful inlay designs. Another method called "hakue", uses thin sheets of gold, which are laid on top of the drying lacquer.

Maeda is considered a master of all the traditional techniques, but he is also well known for his original designs, which blend the past with the present. One of his pieces sitting on display shows the "yambaru-kuina", a rare endemic bird of northern Okinawa. The bird is inset with mother-of-pearl shell, and its rainbow colors glimmer against the jet black color of the lacquer. He also creates beautiful lacquer wall hangings, which look like paintings. The simple colors depict many of Maeda's memories of the surroundings of his village.

Although Maeda is constantly creating new designs, he never forgets the importance of the traditional ones. "You must master the traditional art before you can create your own original style," he said. "Traditional Ryukyu Lacquerware has many meanings in the design. It is very different from mainland Japan laquerware, which is often made with designs that separate the seasons. They are never mixed and are always separated. Ryukyuan designs will blend nature with animals all together into one design."

Maeda's work often begins with the design in his head. He then does a rough sketch before the image is transferred onto a piece of lacquer. Depending on the size of the piece that Maeda is working on, the time it takes to finish can actually take up to three years. The work is very tedious and labor intensive. The design must be carefully created one step at a time, and there are no short-cuts.

"I want to continue to do both traditional and original designs," he explained. He also thinks of himself as a lifelong student of the art, which helps him to maintain an open mind. "There are still many things I didn't know until the day before. I see something in my work, and I ask myself - why didn't I notice this before?" he said. "I am never one hundred percent satisfied with my work, so I am always trying to improve it."

His appealing designs and functional pieces for the average household, together with his work as an instructor, has also helped to revive the traditional art of Ryukyu Lacquerware. "More young people are now studying the art, and more people are also wanting to purchase "true" Ryukyu Laquerware. This helps to create a job market for artists," explained Maeda.

Anyone interested in viewing Maeda's work can visit the Urasoe City Art Museum from 9:30 am until 4:30 pm until Nov. 3. He can be seen there from 2 pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. To get there, head south from Kadena on Highway 58 and turn left at Pizza House in Urasoe. Continue straight, and look for the sign on your left, just before the Urasoe City Hall. The museum is closed on Mondays.

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