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The province of Kaga located in the middle of the main Island (Hondo) of Japan was the domain of the powerful Maeda family during the Edo period.

This "outside" family was relatively independent of the ruling Tokugawa shogun. The area was the agricultural center of Japan and the Maeda family played a role of importance in the Japanese shipping trade. Because of this the Maeda family was less secluded from foreign influences then other parts of Japan.

There is a lot of insecurity concerning the earlier Kutani wares but from my point of view I suggest we should think of Kutani as at least three different kinds of pieces. Two of which was made during the first period, closing sometimes during the first half of the 18th century. Several sources would like to put the official closing date to the first decade of the 18th century, after fifty years of operation but there just are no extant data confirming this.


The products from this first period are generally called Old Kutani (Ku-Kutani).

During the first period some 340 years ago, from around 1655-1657, most probably a pottery tea ware was made. After some years an alchemist named Goto Saijiro are said to have been sent to the Arita area in present Saga prefecture, which was already famous for its porcelain production, to study porcelain technique. He are thereafter said to have returned with craftsmen from Arita after which porcelain production was started in the Kutani village.

At this time production of Iroe multi-colored enamel decorated porcelain seems to have been started. The excavation result are not conclusive, though, so with some knowledge of the human nature it is possibly that some porcelain was made there, some brought in from other areas to be decorated, some blanks was being sent away to be decorated elsewhere and, to make things absolutely hopelessly entangled, porcelain clay and glaze - and even potters - could have been brought in from both Korea and China to help out.

The Maeda family being quite well off and deply involved in the shipping business must have had great possibilities to do very much what they pleased with a gold mine and now - a pottery - hidden away at the Kutani village at a hot spring resort deep in the mountains of Yamanaka in the Ishikawa prefecture.

A fact that might have contributed to the interest in porcelain making was the insight - possibly from the alchemist Goto Saijiro - that a quartz tuff found in the gold mines of Kutani village could be used in porcelain production.

On the early Ko-Kutani porcelain we find five basic enamel colors i.e. cobalt blue, brownish purple, yellow, green and red and a special Aote family in which only green and yellow are used. The patterns on porcelain generally recognized as Ko-Kutani include animals, flowers, landscapes and geometric patterns, with the foot generally painted in a bluish/greenish color. The decoration on some of these wares seems seems to owe some influences from the late Ming Swatow and Kraak ware decoration.

Looking at the time of the appearance of the Kutani kiln I find it more then likely that the potters of the Chinese coastal provincecs who during this time is driven away from their coastal provincec because of the fighting with the Ming loyalist Koxinga, could have had some direct influence of the porcelain production at such a hidden away place as Kutani village.

Revived Kutani

In 1807 a Kutani porcelain kiln was reestablished. The founder invited a famous potter Aoki Mokubei from Kyoto and opened the Kasugayama kiln in the middle of Utatsu-yama hill.

However, being a true artist Mokubei's went for making his own masterpieces which conflicted with the purpose of the Kasugayama kiln, which was more to promote the regional industry than creating great art.

Developing as it usually does when artists clash with the local bureaucrats Mokubei returned to Kyoto, disappointed.

Eventually Mokubei's vision was understood by a number of other potters who one after another opened their own kilns in the name of Kutani porcelain.

This reestablished Kutani potteries developed in their own styles according to their potters taste.

These kilns include:

  1. Wakasugi kiln in Daishoji, under the management of the Kaga fief,
  2. Ono kiln in Daishoji, which was supported by the regional magistrate
  3. Yoshidaya kiln in Daishoji, which was moved to Yamashiro, Yoshidaya's style is characterized by using four of the basic colors (minus red) and traditional layered drawings of Old Kutani, Aote in green-and-yellow.
  4. Miyamoto kiln which created its original style of Iidaya,
  5. Eiraku kin established by Eiraku Wazen, Eiraku's style used a basic red coating and a decorative gold pattern.
  6. Aou Gen'emon kiln in Komatsu,
  7. Minzan kiln in Kanazawa, which succeeded the style of Kasugayama kiln.

Shoza style - "Colored Kinrande"

The most renowned of these different Revived Kutani styles is the Shoza style which was developed by Kutani Shoza at the and of the Edo period, in the 19th century.

Shoza was born a farmer in Terai village, Nomi-gun. At the age of 11, he became a potter, decoration Kutani porcelain and opened his own studio at the age of 26. The unique contribution of his studio was the use of imported enamels in addition to Japanese, which gave a new possibility to create graded shades of colors not possibly before with Japanese enamels. A special combination of gold and a detailed colored enamels decoration came to be known as "Colored Kinrande".

His rather loud general style came to be known as 'Japanese Kutani' which eventually became the common image of Kutani porcelain even if most Japanese connoisseurs would prefer the name "Shoza's style".

Shoza's works were exported during the 19th century (Meiji period).

From the Meiji Period through Today

Porcelain works under the name of Kutani were exhibited at various export markets starting at the 1873 Expo in Vienna, after which production was greatly expanded.

Kutani porcelain gradually became an expensive collectible with its loud, multi-colored, gilded drawings by and large influenced by the Shoza style.

When Kutani Shoza passed away in 1883 he had more than three hundred apprentices. The reason being that by using imported enamels it was possibly to obtain graded colors in a way, which would have been impossibly with traditional Japanese enamels.

In this way Shoza's studio dramatically helped to increase the production of Kutani porcelain and played an important role in establishing Kutani porcelain as a true industry.

Archaeological evidence

Kutani Porcelain has changed during the long course of its history, from the opening of the first kiln through its abandonment and to its revival.

The advanced technique of multiple firings at high temperature is considered to have been already established at the time of Old Kutani.

Most of the records from the early days have been lost but archaeological excavations since 1970 have dug out some 20,000 broken porcelain pieces from the old kiln site in Kutani village in Yamanaka.

At the old kiln site established by the alchemist Goto Saijiro in the so-called dawn of Kutani there today remains the ruins of two dragon kilns nobori-gama (climbing kilns).

The first kiln is a 34 meters long serial chamber kiln which is thought to have closed sometime between 1640 and 1700. Broken pieces of a white porcelain platter with the diameter of some 50 cm and a bowl with floral design were found, one of which could be dated through its mark to Kutani, August, 1656.

The second kiln of 13.7 meters length seems to have closed 40 years after the first kiln. At this kiln pottery and earthen-ware bowls were fired.

Excavations at the site of the Yoshidaya Kiln (found in 1995) and the pair of porcelain lion dogs owned by the Ataka Sumiyoshi Shrine in Komatsu, have proved that the Kutani porcelain style was well established at an early stage.

Thank you for your interest.

Best regards,
Jan-Erik Nilsson