Meiji Imari Renaissansnce Project : The historical background of the Arita porcelain

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What is Arita porcelain? What is its historical background?

The first white porcelain in Japan which was born in Arita

The history of pottery in the northern part of Kyushu is not quite old as the entire Japanese pottery history. The oldest one is, as far as I know, “Karatsuyaki” which is famous for tea pottery which was born at the end of the 16th century. This area was governed by the powerful marine military called Matsuura party, which had been active in the Japan Sea area since the Middle Ages. During the Sengoku, Momoyama area, when Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi gained power, there was tea pottery boom among warriors. They even used to exchange pottery tea cup for the land. A tea set was quite valuable, especially the ones called “karamono” which were from Korea or China. Therefore, it seemed like a group of craftsmen with great skills were invited from Korea. And then, the craftsmen found the clay in Kishidake, which was deep in the mountain, and opened their own kiln.

In 1592, when Hideyoshi Toyotomi sent troops to Korea, many clans brought craftsmen to Japan. One of the potters was Lee San Pei, who was brought by Naoshige Nabeshima, who is the chief of Nabeshima clan of Hizen. In 1616, he found good quality white porcelain clay, and then he opened Tengudani kiln and baked the fist white-color porcalin. This was said to be the start of Arita pottery. At the beginning, they did not call the pottery Arita, but instead, they collectively called porcalin which was produced in Hizen area in general “Imari” which was named after the shipping port. They called the pottery “Karatsu” or “Buyu” or locally “Domono.”
map_en.jpg Imari at the beginning was quite valuable, as they were the first porcelain in Japan. Until then, the emperial families, aristcrats, shogun or heads of local clans spent a lot of money to bought them from China or Korea. The rumor has been spread: they produced porcelain in Japan or they made great pottery in Arita, and then craftsmen from different places gathered in Arita. A group of potters use climbing kiln which was introduced from Korea and baked together. Because of their mass production, they cut down trees for kiln. As a results, lots of mountains became treeless. In order to prevent random trimming of mountain trees or overproduction of inferior goods, in 1638, the Nabeshima clan took Imari-Arita area kiln under control.

Under the management of the Nabeshima clan, they left Korean craftsmen and fired Japanese potters. However, the first generation of craftsmen who migrated from Korea at the end of 1500 and at the beginnig of 1600 became older. Including Lee San Pei who is the father of Arita porcelain, all of them passed away around 1650s. Therefore, there was a problem as to how they can hand down the techniques. They made such efforts as finding their daughters’ husbands who hold good hands, or finding their sons’ wives who have good personalities. There were more mixed breed. They also hired Japanese craftsmen who had excellent skills and had great talent for painting. And then, Imari went through changes. There were many different ways of interpretation, but we could call the production until 1650s when the first generation was alive “early phase” of Imari.

Golden era of exported Imari for half a century

The early phase of Imari, the mainstream was simple “sometsuke”(blue and white ceramics), which was the school of old sometsuke style from Korea’s Joseon Dynasty or the end of the Ming era. And then, as a result of technological innovation, “iroe” (overglaze enamels) was started. And the by the Dutch East India Company or Chinese people, the technology and patterns of Jingdezhen ceramics was introduced which is the greatest ceramic engineering places. In 1656, during the transition period of Chines dynasty from Ming to Qing, they stopped exporting porcalin, as they issued a ban for trading. Because of those backgrounds, Japanese porcelain drew attention rapidly. In 1647, Imari was exported to Cambodia by Chinese merchants, and in 1650, The Dutch East India Company bought Imari and brought it to Hanoi, Vietnam for the first time. As its quality standard was acknowledged worldwide, from

1659, large amount of Japan made porcalin was exported to the Middle Eastern and the European countries. From this time to the early 18th century – during 40 or 50 years – it was the golden age of export Imari. From the year 2009, There was a travelling exhibition titled “Ko-Imai (old Imari) in Paris – Enchanting Beauty”. It showed that “Fuyode” style Imari which rivale or surpassed Jingdezhen ceramics was brought overseas. The Western people were willing to buy them at the same price as gold. At this exciting period of time, Arita people brushed up their techniques rapidly.

The transition of Imari Style

Iroe (overglaze enamel) Unryumon (cloud and dragon pattern) three-legged vaseIroe (overglaze enamel) Unryumon (cloud and dragon pattern) three-legged vase As Japan got deeply involved with the Netherlands and china through exporting, various kinds of raw materials were brought to Japan. As a result, Imari style gradually been changed.

The first drastic change was “Kakiemon Style” which was completed during the late 17th century. This is what we call “Iroe”, overglaze enamels: on the white colored base called Nigoshide, they decorate with blue, red, yellow and green color painting. The pattern is similar to the Japanese-style painting, and it was for the first time in this Kakiemon style that Imari reflects Japanese sense of beauty. This style must have been developed by the second or third generation of Korean but somewhat “Japanised” potters and not by the first generation any longer. At the end of 17th century, the gorgeous-flamboyant “Kinrande” style appeared using a variety of pigment such as gold or red.

On the other hand, the Nabeshima style which was produced by the Nabeshima clan’s kiln was the best of its kind. It was produced for presentation to the government or Daimyo clans, and was separated from the other Imari style. The best period of the Nabeshima style probably was from 1670s to 1690s. Craftsmen felt excited and kept motivation high and competed their technique to each other. The greatest pieces of Nabeshima were produced at this rising period.

At this time, the only production site of ceramics in Japan was Hizen area, which includes Arita and its vicinity such as the Hasami kiln (the Omura clan territory) and the Mikawachi kiln (the Hirato clan territory). Therefore, the Nabeshima clan intended to prevent leaks of pottery production or paiting technique. The protect and educate craftsmen, and at the same time, they were secluded from outside world by creating checkpoints. However in 1806, Tamikichi Kato from Seto succeeded in sneaking into the place. And then, one of the old six kilns, In Seto, they began producing ceramics and at the end of Edo period, the production of porcelain spread widely throughout Japan. Imari was known as artwork, but the pottery called Setomono was widespread among ordinary people.

If you just focus on the scale of market, you might think that other areas swept Japan. However, I believe that the Arita craftsmen strongly hold pride and sense of beauty, and consider Imari different from other ceramics. And they had in mind that they would keep producing the best quality and cutting-edge style work.

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