Inden is the Japanese craft of lacquering tanned deer leather with artistic patterns. It was born over 400 years ago in the Yamanashi prefecture near Mount Fuji. Hundreds of years ago Samurai used Inden as part of their armor because of its strength and durability. The production of Inden for use in samurai armor was born in Koshu, and remains there to this day.
How Inden is Made
The creation of Inden begins with Asian Lacquer Trees. Lacquer sap is so toxic in its liquid state that even the vapors can cause an allergic reaction. Therefore it must be carefully collected, often by people who have a natural immunity to this type of poison sumac. The sap is then heated and minerals such as iron-oxide, carbon black, and cinnabar are added to color the lacquer. Once the lacquer is applied to leather then dries, it is very durable and no longer toxic.
The deer leather is carefully examined for blemishes, then can be either smoked or dyed. Next, the leather is cut into pattern pieces to be lacquered. Katagami, the stencil used for applying the design, is carefully laid over the leather, and the taffy like lacquer is ‘pulled’ over it. Each piece is individually made, as there is no mass production in traditionally crafted Inden.
This video illustrates the traditional process of applying lacquer to the leather to create Inden.
The symbolism of Inden patterns
Tonbo, Dragonfly Pattern
The Tonbo Dragonfly image was very popular with samurai because dragonflies fly straight forward, and is a representation of never giving up.
Karakusa, Vine Pattern
The Karakusa (vines) pattern represents ‘prosperity and longevity.’ The vines are strong and grow long without breaking just like the fullness of life and the continuation of the generations to come.
Sakura, Cherry Blossom Pattern
The sakura (cherry blossom) design symbolizes new beginnings, innocence, and humility. Samurais admired the cherry blossoms because of their short yet beautiful lives. In Japanese culture the sakura blossom is a representation of mortality, a reminder that one should live their life well for it could end as swiftly and unexpectedly as that of a cherry blossom.
Ume, Plum Blossom Pattern
The Ume (plum blossom) symbol originated in Chinese culture. Since the plum blossom is the first flower to bloom after a harsh winter, it represents endurance and perseverance.
Seigaiha, Wave Pattern
The Seigaiha (waves) pattern represents the boundless ocean and the ebb and flow of life. It is a symbol of good fortune and luck.
The peacock pattern means love, good will towards others, nurturing, and kind heart.
Next: to the Inden factory
Continue to the next post in this series to find out more about Inden and what happens when we arrive at the Inden-ya factory in Yamanashi.