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Mon, Nov 18, 2019

Yamaguchi’s Ouchi lacquered dolls: Combining tradition and innovation to carry on

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

(Photo courtesy of Yamaguchi city)
By Maria Rubio Caro / CIR for the city of Yamaguchi

Upon visiting Yamaguchi, a tranquil city to the southwestern edge of Honshu, the visitor may spot at various locations all across the city the rounded shapes of two chubby dolls dressed in exquisitely designed kimono. While available for tourists to purchase at every souvenir shop, it’s not unusual for locals to have them on display at home as well. Large Ouchi doll statues greet travelers at the entrance of Yamaguchi station, and as mascot characters of Yamaguchi, they also show up at many of the city’s festivities.

Large Ouchi dolls greet travelers (Photo courtesy of Maria Rubio Caro)

It’s easy to understand why these dolls are so loved by Yamaguchi’s citizens: they evoke a certain nostalgia, connecting the present with the city’s golden era back in the 14th to 16th centuries. Under the leadership of the Ouchi family, the city became one of the most prosperous in Japan, earning it the nickname “Kyoto of the West.” Foreign trade with Korea and China led to the development of a sophisticated lacquerware industry, known today as “Ouchi lacquerware.”   

Ouchi lacquerware (Photo courtesy of Yamaguchi city)

Japanese lacquer has been used since prehistoric times to embellish and protect utensils. Yamaguchi’s Ouchi lacquerware, a government-designated traditional craft, is a local variety whose most popular manifestation is the Ouchi dolls. According to the tradition, feudal lord Ouchi Hiroyo (1325-1380) filled his palace with dolls so as to keep his wife company – a lady from Kyoto who missed her hometown. Inspired by this story, Ouchi dolls continue to be produced today and have come to symbolize happiness in marriage.

Intrigued by the story, I visited one of the 5 workshops belonging to the Ouchi lacquerware artisans’ guild that still exist today. Founded in 1926, Nakamura Mingeisha’s business has been passed down for three generations. Young and energetic Rie Nakamura cheerfully greets me and guides me inside. Dozens of Ouchi dolls of all shapes and sizes, all standing proudly in their display cases, their faces shiny and sleek, fill the shelves. There are also lacquerware plates, trays, and bowls all decorated following the Ouchi style: autumn flower patterns over a base of dark red and the Ouchi family crest in gold leaf.

Maria Rubio Caro poses with Rie Nakamura at the Nakamura Mingeisha (Photo courtesy of Maria Rubio Caro)

As Rie explains, those luxurious sets of tableware were probably all the rage in times past, but nowadays with the popularization of cheap, water-resistant materials, Japan’s middle-class families prefer to shop in zakka stores and 100-yen shops selling mass-produced household items. Between the drop in sales, artisans aging, and without young people willing to take on the tradition, the number of workshops has decreased by half in the last 30 years: an art at risk of fading away should actions not be taken to protect it.

Though popular, Ouchi dolls also need to adapt to modern times. The creation of one doll is a long process, which accounts for its high price: the wooden pieces are coated, painted, decorated layer by layer and left to dry naturally over the course of months. Rie Nakamura’s husband and brother-in-law split the work: while one applies the base colors the other is in charge of drawing the details, and applying the final decorations using gold leaf and mother-of-pearl.    

Ouchi dolls of all shapes and sizes are on display at Nakamura Mingeisha. (Photo courtesy of Maria Rubio Caro)

In an effort to revitalize the industry, as well as increase younger generations’ awareness of Ouchi lacquerware as part of Yamaguchi’s cultural identity, Nakamura Mingeisha has taken many innovative steps: for instance, the store features elaborate lacquerware art, with an electric guitar, and even Gundam robot figures as canvas for the designs.

Also, in order to appeal to younger generations’ tastes, a new line of Ouchi dolls with a fully rejuvenated design and customizable facial features was released three years ago. There’s also a matryoshka-inspired line that has already been presented at a local product fair in Russia. In addition, in collaboration with the 120-year-old confectionery “Yamaguchi Fugetsu-do,” monaka sweets in the shape of Ouchi dolls are also becoming a popular gift for Nov. 22, the non-official Japanese day for couples.

With the number of wood artisans also shrinking away, the training of the younger generations has become a priority. This has triggered a project in close collaboration with Yamaguchi’s prefectural university in which with the help of digitalized designs and 3D printing techniques, students can contribute new ideas by putting their creativity into practice.

Originally an outsider, now married into the Nakamura family, Rie is determined to protect Nakamura Mingeisha and help carry the tradition for another 100 years. 

As I headed back home, two massive Ouchi dolls smiled at me from the distance – painted on the surface of huge tankers from a local gas company – silent symbols of the impact traditions have in our everyday lives and the responsibility we have to help carry them on for years to come.

An Ouchi doll painted on the surface of a gas tanker (Photo courtesy of Maria Rubio Caro)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Maria Rubio Caro

Maria, from Spain, has been living in and loving Yamaguchi for just five years now. At present, she works as a CIR at Yamaguchi City Hall, which is hosting the Training Camps of the Spanish Swimming National Teams for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Her hobbies include trekking, playing shakuhachi and frequenting izakaya that serve fish and seafood. Her life dream is to find the stretch of forest where Totoro hides. Before coming to Japan, she studied Japanese at Comillas University of Madrid, and Autonomous University of Madrid, where she participated in a 1-year exchange program at Osaka University. In 2005, she took a Summer Course at Sophia University, Tokyo.



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