Regency History

Demystifying Japan


In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the heroine, Catherine Morland, is intrigued by a mysterious cabinet in her room at the Tilney’s home. She describes it as, “black and yellow Japan of the handsomest kind,” which begs the question, what is “Japan”?

Now, I kind of already knew the answer to this question, but it was cool to discover that 1) I was basically right, and 2) I had no idea what real “Japan” was.

So, 1) I somehow knew that “Japan” was a reference to lacquerware, and I had a vague picture of a plain black cabinet, painted with yellow or gold Japanese designs, like you’d see on an old mural or something, and then shellacked. Because that’s what lacquer is, right?

Well, 2) wrong. True lacquerware is made by painting wood or paper pieces with several layers of the sap of the lac tree, which grows only in Asia, and is poisonous until it dries. This last fact was probably why only master craftsmen undertook the art of lacquerware making, and, combined with the other two facts, made the finished pieces highly sought-after and very expensive (hence, they were only to be found in fancy places like Northanger Abbey).

Though the art of lacquerware-making probably originated in China, the Japanese and others created their own versions of the process, and all lacquerware became very popular in the West in the 18th century, when Europeans colonized areas of Asia (which the English rather high-handedly called the East Indies) and set up regular trade. Notwithstanding the fact that China and other Asian countries were still creating lacquerware,

In the West, lacquerware was often called “Japan,” showing that lacquerware-making is an Asian art.

Akio Haino, Department of Fine Arts, Kyoto National Museum

Lacquerware takes many forms, including intricate serving pieces, where hundreds of layers of lacquer are applied and then painstakingly carved (this is the original Chinese method of lacquerware-making):

Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Tray
with Blue Magpies and Camellias

China, Yuan Dynasty (14th century)
Diameter 32.4cm, height 3.5 cm
Important Cultural Property (Korin-in Temple, Kyoto)

to detailed screens made with fewer layers of pigmented and etched lacquer (the original Japanese method), to shaped pieces, including cups, pots, bowls, trays, and boxes, made with a base of paper or thin wood and painted with several layers of pigmented lacquer, and often finished with gold:

I. M. CHAIT AUCTIONS, Beverly Hills, CA, USA

But what caught Miss Morland’s fancy in the guestroom of Northanger Abbey was probably something like the picture at the top of this post.

Which leaves one to wonder, did she have any idea the history of the handsome Japan cabinet she was inspecting? Because if she did, perhaps she would have spent less time searching its recesses for the lost manuscript of a tortured soul, and more time being amazed at the sheer artistry of the thing!

But such a pedantic consideration is probably too much to be hoped for in a heroine of Catherine Morland’s romantic stamp. And it would have ruined the story, too.