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Do You Know the Story about Porcelain in Japan?

Author:    Source:    Date: 2016-08-04 19:28:22

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. 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. “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. 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.

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.

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