JAPANESE PORCELAIN: A Brief History of Japan’s Ceramic Artisans

Various antique Japanese porcelain, Japan, 19th and early 20th century - photo by Catawiki

The production of Japanese porcelain started in the 17th century, later than that of Korea and China. With the long history of Japanese porcelain, the first Japanese porcelain was made in towards the end of the Stone Age or the Neolithic time. During this period, the kilns and artists in different locations of Japan made glazed porcelain and pottery stoneware, including their own special type of porcelain, highlighting the artistic qualities of a normal organic down-to-earth austerity, simplicity, and feeling.  

Jōmon pottery flame-style vessel, 3000–2000 BC, attributed provenance Umataka, Nagaoka, Niigata – photo by Wikipedia

Japanese porcelain comprises of a highly exceptional white to an off-white hard paste made with ball clays and kaolin blended with silica and feldspar. The shiny finished surface of Japanese porcelain looks dark purple or magenta underneath short and mid-range ultraviolet light. 

Methods and ideas entered Japan all the way from China through Korea together with the methods and ways for producing pottery, Korean and Chinese designs. At the same time, some people from the Middle East were believed to have had strong control over Japanese porcelain – with particular reference to the Japanese blue and white porcelain. 

“Fujisan” white Raku ware tea bowl (chawan) by Hon’ami Kōetsu, Edo period – photo by Wikipedia

Despite the fact that the influential citizens of Japan were enthusiastic importers of Chinese porcelain from the early age, they were unable to produce their own until the Korean potters arrived and took them captive in the 1592 to 1598 Japanese invasions of Korea.  

These people introduced a superior brand of kiln and a source of porcelain clay was spotted near Arita by one of them. Before long, quite a lot of kilns began in the locality. Initially, they had their wares looked like the cruder and cheaper Chinese porcelains having underglaze blue adornment that were previously and extensively sold in Japan. This style continued for cheaper day by day wares until the 20th century.  

Tureen with Landscape, Japan, late 17th century – photo by Metropolitan Museum of Art

Around 1660, Japanese porcelain export to Europe started through the Dutch East India Company and the Chinese, who were the only permitted trading presence. However, the export by the Chinese was gravely interrupted by civil wars; making the Japanese exports increased quickly and breached the gap. 

In the beginning, the wares used European shapes and Chinese decoration, just as done by the Chinese. Nevertheless, the innovative Japanese styles developed progressively. 

By the beginning of the 19th century, a great deal of styles and manufacturing centres were in place, and Japanese porcelain exports expanded hugely and quality declined automatically, as Japan opened to trade in the second half of the century. A great deal of the customary porcelain continues to imitate older production techniques and styles, and there are more than a few modern industrial producers. 

Pair of 19th Century Japanese Porcelain Kutani Vases – photo by 1stDibs

It should, however, be noted that nearly all the Japanese porcelain sold between 1880 and the First World War in the United States were the vases and traditional tea wares. The Japanese porcelain cake and tea plates, tea services and side dishes decorated in landscape motifs and flora were however advertised in 1895 by the Montgomery Ward and Company Catalog. Nevertheless, very small Japanese tableware was imported by the US until after the 20th century. 

More than 50-percent of domestic ceramic table and kitchenware were imported into the US by the late 1920s was made in Japan, and by the mid-1930s, this percentage had increased. A large quantity of this porcelain comprised of cheap, relatively poor quality novelty ware for the first four decades of the 20th century. In the 1930s, Japan transported mammoth quantities of cheap porcelain to the US. 

Mid-20th Century Japanese Porcelain Hand Painted Moriage Tea/Dessert, Set of 19 – photo by 1stDibs

Plus the porcelain manufactured for foreign export, it is not rare for Japanese porcelain produced for the household market to actually feature in the archaeological collections. 

Higher quality Japanese porcelain started to be imported in huge quantities after the war. With this development, Japan had turned out to be the leading foreign supplier of porcelain to America by the third quarter of the 20th century. The superiority of the product and the perception of the Americans of it had really improved tremendously. At present, Japanese porcelain is considered to be one of the best in quality and the finest in the world. 

Forms of Japanese Porcelain 

There are different types of Japanese porcelain. They comprised of the western-style vessels connected with food and beverages such as plates, creamers, cocoa pots, cups and saucers, teapots, eggcups, salt shakers, butter pats, mustard jars, bowls, and bon-bon dishes. 

Japanese Porcelain Decoration 

Antique Edo Period Imari Arita Japanese Porcelain Charger, c. 1900 – photo by GoAntiques

Using paper stencils to make decoration started about 1875. It received acceptability and recognition many years later and remained like that until about 1920.   

Japanese porcelain can be decorated in different ways such as transfer printing, stenciling, moulding, under and over the glaze painting, as well as resists. The popular motifs used were of plants like cherry, plum, bamboo, peony, and chrysanthemum, and animals, normally birds.