Japanese pottery

Haniwa, 600 AD, Japan

At the beginning of the Edo period, kaolin was discovered near Arita, in northern Kyūshū, which is still a major pottery center. This discovery enabled Japanese potters to make their own hard, pure white porcelain. One type, Imari ware (named for its port of export), was so popular in 17th-century Europe that even the Chinese imitated it.

Its bright-colored designs were inspired by ornate lacquerwork, screens, and textiles. By the late Edo period (1800-1867) Imari ware declined. Kakiemon (persimmon) porcelain, made in Arita, was a far more refined, classically shaped ware, even when its motifs were similar to Imari ware. Both wares used overglaze enamels. Nabeshima ware, also of high quality and similar to silk textiles in its designs, was reserved for members of that family and their friends; only in the Meiji era (1868-1912) was it sold commercially and imitated.

The designs were first drawn on thin tissue, and then in underglaze blue lines; the enamel colors were added and heat-fused after the glaze firing. In eastern Japan in the Edo period, Kutani was the porcelain center. Kutani vessels were grayish in color because of impurities in the clay, and their designs were bolder than those of Arita and Imari wares. Kyōto, formerly a center for enameled pottery, became famous for its porcelain in the 19th century. In the Edo period, some 10,000 kilns were active in Japan.

Contemporary taste esteems the utilitarian works of folk potters as highly as the export items of earlier centuries. New influences from Europe came with the Meiji pottery, but native folk traditions were still appreciated within the country. Potters at the old centers remain active in the 20th century, working in the same styles as their ancestors, with the same local clays. Japan’s most famous 20th-century potter is Hamada Shoji, important not only for his pottery but also as a forceful figure in the revival of folkcraft.

Hamada favored iron and ash glazes on stoneware, producing shades of olive green, gray, brown, and black, and did not sign his pots (although he signed their wooden containers). In 1955 the Japanese government declared Hamada an Intangible Treasure of the country.