Japan is often called a land of contradictions. It is a place where technology is pushed to new limits, and where urban cityscapes can span past the horizon. Yet it is also a country and culture that intentionally honors and preserves the past.
In order to understand the modern context of Yakisugi in Japan, one must look back a few centuries to the policy of Sakoku, during the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled from roughly the year 1600 to 1868. Prior to this time period, Portuguese traders and missionaries found great success in the import and export of goods and knowledge, with the first European contact taking place in 1543. But in response to an increase in piracy and the perceived threat of external ideology, the Sakoku policies created near-total isolation for Japan on the world stage.
During this time, also called the Edo Period, the Tokugawa Shogunate moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo (now known as Tokyo). The new capital of Edo, like much of Japan, was constructed primarily of wood and paper, leading to a number of devastating fires. After a particularly destructive event in 1657, Japanese architecture began to pivot towards techniques and designs that would help mitigate the effects of fire. Thatched roofs were replaced by tiles, and stone embankments were constructed to reduce fire spread.
By the 1700s, a new technique was developed to help slow the spread of fires, and provide a stronger and more weather-resistant coating to wood buildings. Known as Yakisugi (or Shou Sugi Ban), this technique involves charring the exterior of a wood surface until a layer of carbonization is achieved. While this carbonization can sometimes appear almost as a dark-brown stain, it can also take on a crackled pattern, depending on the intensity of the burn and the species of wood used.
Traditionally, this process was performed on Japanese Cedar (called “Sugi”), though in modern times it has been applied to more wood species. When creating Yakisugi, the wood must be burned to a precise level before the fire is quenched. For some Yakisugi finishes, the wood surface is then brushed to create a uniform color (anywhere from deep brown to pitch black). Or in the case of a crackle-style burn, the product is left as-is to achieve the maximum effect.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive to intentionally burn wood siding in a region prone to fire, the process forms a protective layer that make it naturally fire-resistant to a much higher level than untreated wood. It also prolongs the life of the wood, and helps it resist insect infestation, water, and decay. For this reason, the technique became a popular way to treat wood used on traditional Japanese townhouses, shrines, and other buildings during the Edo Period, to such an extent that the look itself is now generally associated with pre-war Japan.