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Japanese porcelain

The Japanese word for porcelain, pottery and earthenware alike is yaki. For centuries and up to this day, yaki has always been a vital and successful art form in Japan and during many periods, an important trade commodity.

After the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1598, a number of skilled Korean potters who had learned from the Chinese how to produce fine porcelain, were brought back to Japan. Some of these settled in Arita in northern Kyushu, where they discovered porcelain clay. One of the Korean porcelain makers was Ri Sampei. He is considered as the "father" of Japanese porcelain. The area became Japan's major centre of porcelain production and its products were also exported from the port of Imari.

Until the beginning of the Meiji (1868-1913) period, the direct east-west trade with Japan was dominated by the Dutch East India Company. Due to trade difficulties with China by the end of the Chinese Ming dynasty and an improved Japanese economy, a strong demand for Japanese ceramics resulted in a surge of creativity during the Momoyama period (1573-1615), with thousands of kilns developing their own distinct regional characteristics. High-fired stonewares were central to this tradition.

The modern Japanese porcelain industry started in the early 17th century. Even during the Edo period (1603-1868), when Japan lived isolated from the rest of the world, exports of Japanese porcelain to Western countries was significant.

During the 17th and early 18th century Japanese porcelain was very popular in Europe and competed successfully with the Chinese. Blue and white Arita porcelain was copied on tin glazed earthenware in many places in Europe, of which Dutch Delft faiance is the most famous. During the 18th century Kakiemon enamel decoration was also widely copied in England.

Although Japanese porcelain production developed its own styles, the influence of Chinese and Korean porcelain traditions can often and easily be found.

Geographically the porcelain production was more spread out in Japan than the Chinese, where most of the porcelain was made in the one city of Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi province. In a similar way, however, the center of the Japanese porcelain industry could be said to have been located on the southern island of Kyushu. The largest city on Kyushu is Arita while the largest nearby port was called Imari. These are the two most important names in the history of Japanese export porcelain. When it come to quality and artistic merit the picture is infinetly more complicated.

In the same manner as the name Swatow in China became synonymous with the wares once shipped out from there, the name Imari become a synonym for Japanese porcelain with a characteristic decoration dominated by red and gold enamels on a base of underglaze blue porelain, most often of the 18th and 19th century. This decoration is also called Old Imari (in Japanese: Ko-Imari) by the Japanese themselves.

To repeat so far; Arita is the city and the area, Imari, is the harbor and a name on a decoration.

To specifically concentrate on this southern area we are now going to look into the different styles that can occur in "Arita produced" or "Imari exported" ware of this region. They have their names after the regions where they were produced or after the potter families who created the style. The names can be somewhat confusing since they are often simplified generalisations.

Arita porcelain - the area

Arita porcelain are any porcelain that coming from the area of Arita. Arita is also generally used as a name on specifically the blue and white porcelain coming from this area. The Japanese name for blue and white porcelain is Sometsuke where the older types such as 17th and 18th century are called Ko-Sometsuke, meaning "Old Blue-and-white".

During the seventeenth century almost all Japanese porcelain was Arita blue and white. Even the Chinese copied and exported wares in Japanese taste, to Japan. The early exports of Arita porcelain was run by the Dutch from around 1660, while the supplies from China became scarse due to the civil wars raging the coastal provinces of China after the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and blocking the transportation. Around 1700, enamel colors are begininng to gain in popularity and the resulting more colorful porcelain are primarily the Imari porcelain that now get its name from the Imari harbor.

The stagnant situation in Arita around the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and a great fire in 1828 caused the Hizen porcelain industry to waver, while porcelain production began to flourish in the Mino and Seto regions.

At this time in Arita it was the wealthy merchant Yojibe Hisatomi, who resumed the trade which had been declining since the first half of the 18th century. He was the only active dealer and became the first man to put his own brand name on his porcelains. It was "Zoshuntei Sanpo-zo" (Made by Zoshuntei Sanpo). The success stimulated other merchants and potters who also wanted to export their products. In the domain (han) there were only 16 families that had permission to work with overglaze enameling. The mounting demand, drove the domain (han) to give trade permission to nine merchants such as Eizaemon Fukagawa and Ihei Hirabayashi. With the abolition of the domain (han) system in 1871 all potters and overglaze enamellers that had previously needed the domain's permission to operate now became free to conduct business on their own.

Fukugawa - a factory

Fukugawa is a is a family, a brand name, a place and nowadays a pocelain factory and whose history goes back in the Arita region to the seventeenth century. Fukagawa is thus a part of - but not all - of Arita. After the collapse of the feudal system of the Tokugawa dynasty (also called Edo, 1615-1867) and a devastating economic recession, Ezaiemon Fukagawa who in 1856 became head of his family's porcelain business and decided to concentrate on exports to the European and North American markets. In 1875 he founded Koransha (The Company of the Scented Orchid) to produce tableware for export. Fukugawa porcelain comes in a wide variety of designs and colors. It can be best characterized as combining traditional Japanese designs with Western style elements.

At the end of the 19th century, when Fukagawa Seiji was established, clay from Amakusa was used to produce a pure white base which provided a contrast to the very colorful glazes. Some Fukagawa pieces of this period show evidence of being influenced by the Hirado style although this is not true in every case.

Nabeshima - a feudal clan and extreme quality

Arita porcelain for the Nabeshima clan, was developed by the discovery of clay in the Izumiyama area in Arita. Nabeshima was a very rare and expensive porcelain made especially and only for the use of the Nabeshima family themselves. The true and original Nabeshima wares are finer and thiner than normal Arita ware and are of a design that makes them looks perfectly 'modern' in a high quality kind of sense.

Hirado - superb blue and white

Hirado porcelain of the Matsuura clan are characterized by their beautiful white base through the use of clay from Amakusa, Kumamoto prefecture. Some masterpieces feature underglaze designs which contrasts nicely against this white base. Hirado also produced detailed white sculptures.

Kakiemon - "Japanese famille verte"

Kakiemon porcelain has its name after the family who are said to have introduced decoration with overglaze enamel colors in Japan. This porcelain starts with its founder, Kakiemon I (ca. 1596-1666) of the Sakaida family. The porcelain in itself, was produced in the Arita area and are generally of an exceptional good white and soft quality, and most of the time in square, octagonal or hexagonal shapes.

Satsuma - cracled earthenware

Close to the Arita area in the Southern area of Kyushu Island we also find the center for the Satsuma wares. As we know it today, it is something between porcelain and pottery and fired at a lower temperatures than porcelain. Satsuma wares originated from the seventeenth century when the lord of Satsuma established a kiln with the help of Korean potters. Satsuma ware from this time was made of brown clay.

As a general rule, in the latter half of the Edo period, porcelain designs were made with natural cobalt based pigment (gosu).

Kutani Ware

Further east and on the north side of the middle of the Japanese Honshu island we find the Kutani (Nine Valleys) kiln area. Kutani was a leading porcelain center in the Ishikawa Prefecture since the seventeenth century. Early Kutani ware is characterized by a green and brown color palette. Later Kutani has bright colors in green, blue, aubergine, yellow, orange, black and gold.

On the south side of Honshu, we find both the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, close to each other as San Franciso and Los Angeles.

On September 1, 1923 two minutes before noon, a devastating earthquake hit the densely populated area of Tokyo and Yokohama. The fires that immediately broke raged for three days and cased by far more damages than the earthquake itself. When the first shocks hit, many charcoal cooking stoves were in use for the preparation of the lunch meal and the winds made the fires spread. Most of the houses were light buildings with wooden tile roofs, and were built close to each other with hardly any empty space between them. People had no place to escape and 140,000 people suffocated or burned in the fires - 58,000 of them in Tokyo. Tokyo and Yokohama were destroyed to 70 and 80 percent. Photographs from the scene show completely flattened areas.

Communication between the disaster area and the rest of Japan and the world was completely cut off. The news of the disaster was first transmitted by ships anchored in the Yokohama and Tokyo bay area. When first reports of the tragedy arrived in the capitals outside Japan, immediate relief efforts were launched by the United States and other countries. From 1926 on, the rebuilding took a breath-taking speed and by 1932 Tokyo and Yokohama were modern, vibrating cities. <