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Illuminating lacquer maker Onishi Isao, one of Japan's Living National Treasures

“The beauty is in the process and the final object is the sum of the path"

In September, The Art Newspaper met master lacquer maker Onishi Isao, ­designated a Living National Treasure (LNT) in his native Japan for his skill in the rare and ancient bentwood technique. In London to ­promote an exhibition of contemporary Japanese crafts at the British Museum (“Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan”, until 21 October), Onishi ­discussed his profession and the importance of the Living National Treasure system in ­preserving the value of meticulous processes in a restless society increasingly given over to product and instant results.

In 1954, Japan’s system for preserving its ­cultural heritage was expanded to include “important intangible cultural properties”.

It is no coincidence that this came after the return of sovereignty by the US to Japan, when the country was rebuilding its sense of national pride. The intention was to protect and uphold the skills and techniques of the traditional Japanese arts at the highest level of excellence, ensuring that they continued to be passed on to future generations, but also include an innovative element. Currently there are around 52 LNTS. The title is awarded by the minister of science and education to masters in arts such as ceramics, lacquer, metalwork, paper and textiles as well as traditions of performance like kabuki theatre and dance. It is usually conferred towards the end of a life dedicated to the particular skill and is allocated on a regional as well as a skill basis, providing an annual stipend of ¥2m ($17,400) before tax. The scheme is also extended to the tool-makers and others involved in the manufacturing process, who receive ¥1m.

The LNT scheme is little known outside Japan, and yet it certainly influenced the Japanese director general of Unesco, Koichiro Matsuuda, when he instituted a method of singling out the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Mankind in 2001, to protect traditional skills and traditions.

Onishi points to the 1970s as the time when Japanese society began to undergo the radical changes that threatened the iemoto system—the age old chains of familial apprenticeship through which the skills of Japan’s traditional craftsmen were transmitted. “With the economic boom there was an increase in the number of young people going to university and an embracing of technology,” he said. “This had a profound effect on the national psyche and caused a shift towards individual expression.”

Onishi was made a LNT in 2002 for lacquerware or kyushitsu. Aged 58, he was considered young for the honour which is generally conferred on craftsmen late in life. He is also atypical in that he is not following in the profession of his father who was a carpenter. Born in 1944 in Kyushu, the southern island where he is the only LNT, he decided to take up lacquer making comparatively late, starting in his early 20s and undergoing a ten-year apprenticeship with master Akaji Yusai in the ancient bentwood technique he now practices. It is such a difficult process that only three or four other artists in Japan have mastered it. Onishi says that his training would have continued longer, but when his teacher died in 1985 he took it as a sign to start selling his work.

Working ten hours a day on a single piece at a time, he takes ten months to produce a finished object like the one currently on show at the British Museum. Choosing to work with traditional materials in a traditional way, he follows a holistic path that also includes making his own tools and everything else in his working environment. “I make things because they are beautiful,” he says. “The beauty is in the process and the final object is the sum of the path.”

The LNT system does have its critics. According to Japanese writer Aoyama Wahei it is archaic, politicised and discriminatory against arts not considered to be making a sufficiently important contribution to Japanese culture.

Onishi himself believes that the Living National Treasure system has changed a lot in the past 50 years. “Government patronage is a good thing in the beginning but it gets moribund and complicated,” he says. “Patronage needs to be readdressed and it is hard to know if it can continue in the same way.”

Nevertheless he believes that the system is still crucial for those trying to pursue a career in the traditional arts. “With the recent economic slowdown, the younger generation of artists have a harder time making a living as craftsmen,” he says. “They need a recognised name in order for the department stores to sell their work.”

Closely connected with the Japanese Arts Crafts Association, a quasi-governmental organisation that administers the LNT system, department stores are important for the sales of work by LNTs. Each year an exhibition of crafts made by LNTs starts in Tokyo’s Mitsukoshi department store and travels to Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kanawa and Fukuoka in an itinerary that has recently been expanded to include museums as well as stores.

Unlike many LNTs, Onishi does not have a contract with a department store and sells his work himself. “If I sell a piece for ¥1m, a department store will charge ¥2m plus tax,” he says. “The piece I brought to London would cost ¥1.5m.” Onishi says that he has only three main collectors in Japan. “None of them are very wealthy”, he continues, “but they love my work and they even use them for fish or noodles.”

Onishi says that he knows the work of contemporary artists like Murakami but is not much impressed. He prefers late 19th-century Japanese romantic artist Aoki Shigeru and his contemporary Van Gogh. He admits that he lives out of kilter with the normal pace of life in Japan. He does not own a mobile phone but stresses that he does not advocate that we should look backwards. Indeed his son has shunned his father’s trade for a career in robotics. “I just think that it is time to re-address fundamental issues,” he says. “It is time for more self-examination.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“The beauty is in the process and the final object is the sum of the path"'