Porcelain production began in Japan in the early seventeenth century, several hundred years after it had first been made in China during the Tang dynasty (618–906) (26.292.98). This refined white ceramic requires more advanced technology than other ceramic types. The vessels are fired at very high temperatures so that they are strong and vitrified, as opposed to low-fired earthenware, which is porous and easily breakable. Unlike stoneware, which is high-fired but can be made from many different types of clay, porcelain is made from a specific clay mixture that includes a soft, white variety called kaolin. The smooth, semi-translucent surface of porcelain is ideal for painting delicate designs, and has been prized in both the East and West.
The Japanese porcelain industry was actually pioneered by Korean potters living in Japan. Many of them came to Japan during two invasions of Korea led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 1590s. An appreciation of Korean ceramics had recently developed in Japan, and many of the feudal lords who accompanied Hideyoshi brought back Korean potters to build up the ceramic industry in their territories (1983.557.2). The Nabeshima lord took Korean potters back to his province of Hizen on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. These potters would eventually become the first producers of porcelain in Japan, but they started out by reviving the production of a type of stoneware called Karatsu ware (2002.447.21). This type of ceramic is usually simple, inexpensive, and made rapidly but skillfully on the potter’s wheel. The potters also introduced a new type of kiln to Japan, the noborigama, or climbing kiln, which allows for greater precision during firing. Therefore, when in the early seventeenth century the Korean potters living in the Arita district of Hizen found suitable clay for the manufacture of porcelain, the infrastructure for its production was already in place. The Hizen region thus became the major center of porcelain production in Japan.
The first porcelain made in Japan by these Korean potters is known as early Imari (1975.268.495). “Imari” refers to a port near the Arita kilns, from which these wares were shipped to the rest of the country. Since these porcelains were primarily for domestic consumption, the term “early” is added to distinguish them from later wares also classified as “Imari” which were typically for export. Most early Imari pieces feature designs painted in cobalt blue on a white ground, then coated in a transparent glaze, in the style known as underglaze blue (1975.268.477). The porcelain has a coarse, grainy texture and the designs are generally carried out by a free, fluid hand. The technique of painting pictoral designs under a clear glaze was sometimes employed on Karatsu ware, so early Imari may have in part stemmed from this earlier tradition.
Early Imari was probably also inspired by underglaze blue porcelain manufactured at kilns in the south of China. These heavy, rough wares with flowing blue brushstrokes were exported to Japan around the beginning of the seventeenth century. They differ significantly from the varieties of Chinese underglaze blue that were exported to the West from the Jingdezhen kiln, which have structured, stylized patterns. The less formal wares from the southern kilns conformed more to Japanese taste of the time, which was inspired by the tea ceremony and favored a rustic, simple appearance.
By the mid-seventeenth century, Chinese porcelain production, which had dominated the international market up to that point, went into decline due to social unrest and accompanying dynastic change. There was therefore a demand for porcelain in the international market shortly after the industry had begun to develop in Japan. This coincided with the early Edo Period (1615–1868), during which time the country was unified under the strict control of the Tokugawa shogunate. In 1639, less than a century after Europeans had first found their way to Japan, the shogun instituted a policy of national isolation. The Dutch and Chinese, however, were partially exempted from this policy. Dutch merchants were permitted to maintain residences on the small man-made island of Deshima, near Nagasaki, and continue trade with Japan. Responding to European demand, the Dutch encouraged the fledgling Japanese porcelain industry to fill the gap left by China. This Japanese export porcelain is commonly referred to as Arita ware (79.2.176a,b), for the district in which the kilns were located. From the nearby port of Imari, the Japanese would transport the goods to Nagasaki, where the Dutch or Chinese could pick them up and reship them to their final destination. They are therefore sometimes also identified as Imari ware.
The porcelain the Dutch brought to Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was some of the first Japanese art to which Europeans were exposed. However, these ceramics were not a direct reflection of indigenous styles because they were consciously designed to cater to Western tastes. To ensure that they would find a ready market, the Dutch often made wooden or earthenware models of designs they believed would be appealing to Europeans, and sent those to Japan to be copied. Therefore, some Japanese ceramics are decorated with designs credited to Dutch artists, such as the draughtsman Cornelis Pronk (2002.447.123). Models were also used to demonstrate European vessel shapes for the Japanese potters, who would have been unfamiliar with those forms (79.2.176a,b).
The Dutch also exposed the Arita potters to Chinese underglaze blue porcelain, which was popular in Europe, so that they could use it as an example in their own work. There were two varieties of underglaze blue that became models for Japanese export porcelain. The type known as kraak (1995.268.1) was commonly used for plates, while the Transitional style, also popular on Chinese export wares, was employed for closed shapes like jars and tureens. Kraak ware is identified by a paneled border around a central scene, and is generally quite regimented and complex (2002.447.40). Vessels modeled on Transitional wares usually depict stylized landscapes (2002.447.47a,b). Over time, there was a departure from this strict copying, and elements common in early Imari ware were incorporated into the export wares, giving them a more spontaneous feel.
A technique of using colored enamels over the glaze was developed in the 1630s, so that in addition to blue-and-white porcelain, multicolored objects could now be made (23.225.144). Since this new style appeared attractively exotic to European buyers, it was frequently employed in the decoration of Japanese export porcelain. One such type of overglaze enameled porcelain is known as Kakiemon ware, because it was made at the Kakiemon kiln in Arita. These objects feature motifs derived from Japanese paintings, such as figures, animals, and flowers, which were painted in a distinctive palette of red, yellow, green, blue, and black on a milky white ground (1975.268.528).
The Nabeshima lord, who supported and controlled the Arita kilns, also spurred the development of a new style of porcelain. In order to win favor with the shogunate, he would regularly present gifts of porcelain. Originally, he imported wares from the Chinese kiln site of Jingdezhen, since those were considered to be of the finest quality. However, around the middle of the seventeenth century, as domestic porcelain improved and foreign imports declined, the Nabeshima lord commissioned the production of a specialty ware at a separate kiln in his province. Perhaps the most refined and elegant variety of Japanese porcelain, this is known as Nabeshima ware, and was created exclusively for the shogunal family, feudal lords, and the nobility (1975.268.556). The techniques and designs of this kiln were kept secret and were not permitted to be imitated on porcelain for the general market. Nabeshima ware is characterized by smooth, uniform surfaces, soft colors, and Japanese motifs. Designs are painted precisely and often echo patterns from textiles and simple themes from the natural world (1975.268.555). Despite their beauty, these dishes were not purely decorative, but rather were used as tableware by the ruling classes. The rounded figures and high feet of these wares reflect the fact that they were intended to harmonize with the precious lacquer bowls that would be placed beside them.
Though Japan’s premodern porcelain history is rather short in comparison to its mainland neighbors, the industry had a vigorous life. Founded by Korean potters, inspired by Chinese styles, and encouraged by Dutch traders, Japanese porcelain absorbed foreign influence while also incorporating uniquely Japanese elements.
Willmann, Anna. “Edo-Period Japanese Porcelain.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jpor/hd_jpor.htm (April 2011)
Impey, Oliver. Japanese Export Porcelain: Catalogue of the Collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Amsterdam: Hotei, 2002.
Impey, Oliver. The Early Porcelain Kilns of Japan: Arita in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Shimura, Goro. The Story of Imari: The Symbols and Mysteries of Antique Japanese Porcelain. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2008.
Wilson, Richard L. Inside Japanese Ceramics: A Primer of Materials, Techniques, and Traditions. New York: Weatherhill, 1995.