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Japanese Porcelain - A brief outline

The manufacture of porcelain came late to Japan. Legend has it that the Korean potter Ri Sampei (1579-1655), who had been brought to Japan at the age of 19, found clay for porcelain production at Izumiyama near Arita, established a kiln at Tengudani and fired the first plain white, and the first underglaze cobalt blue porcelains in Japan.

From 1620-28 experimentations took place in the Arita area to meet orders placed by Chinese and South East Asian merchants at the port of Hirado. In 1641 the trading location was changed by the Japanese gouvernment to the island of Deshima in the Nagasaki harbor.

Arita is still the best known area for porcelain production and most Japanese porcelain does come from this area. By the mid 19th century kilns all over Japan produced porcelain, some characteristically distinctive from others.

Japanese Imari - style, ware and export harbor

The wares we normally call just Imary should actually be named "Ko-Imari", but I will explain that further down. First of all, "Imari" is the common name used for Japanese porcelain produced almost entirely at the Arita area, Hizen province kilns, nowadays Saga-prefecture, on the Island of Kyushu. The name "Imari" was taken from the Japanese port from which the porcelain was shipped.

The name as well as the porcelain that goes under this name dates from the turn of the 17th century up until today with a distinct downperiod during 1830-45 caused by a devastating fire in the Arita valley in 1828.

Most "Imari" porcelain is actually in blue & white only but at different times gold and enamels could be painited on top of porcelain decorated in underglaze blue. Most common is red with touches of gold. The style is derived from Chinese late Ming porcelain. When the Chinese economy broke down during the final struggle by the Ming loyalists againt the invading Manchus, the Japanese helped fill the gap, but the Chinese style prevailed in the marketplace.

Shoki-Imari is the earliest and oldest Imari made for local Japanese use and taste and dates from the beginning of the porcelain production, around 1620 until the onset of the export trade to Holland and the Near East in 1659. Shoki-Imari is rarely seen outside of Japan.

Ko-Imari meaning old-Imari, follows Shoki-Imari historically and refers to the late 17th century through the mid Edo period. Like Shoki-Imari Ko-Imari is not as rare as the earlier Shoki-Imari. Records of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) trading from Batavia show that in 1660 the first Japanese porcelains were shipped directly to the European markets bringing vast quantities of Ko-Imari to Europe. The VOC export continued until 1757 after which point exports were done privately, continuing until the present day. Export Imari is decorated with underglaze lue heightened with gold and red, and sometimes green and blue enamels in a style meant to appeal to the Western taste (or lack thereof).

Kakiemon - distinct ware, potter's family and decoration

Kakiemon is really a family of potters who worked at the Nangawa kiln near Arita. Sakaida Kizaemon (1596-1666) was among the first producers of porcelain in Japan, and is also recognized for using the first overglaze enamels on Japanese porcelains. The name Kakiemon is connected to porcelain of a high quality produced during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries as well as a distinct type of decoration in enamels with much in common with the Chinese "Famille Verte" style.

Nabeshima - distinct ware

The first kiln for Nabeshima was set up in Iwayakawa-chi around 1630, it would later move to Okochiyama. Produced under the patronage of Saga Daimyo Lord Nabeshiima, these porcelains were intended only for the use of the Daimyo. Later in the 19th century they would be produced for both the domestic and export markets; characteristics of Nabeshima include drawing outlines produced with underglaze blue, followed with enameled polychromes. Designs are precisely painted and perfectly finished.

Sometsuke - style

Means porcelain with blue-and-white underglaze decoration.

Ko-Sometsuke - style

Means "old-blue and white" specifically imitating old Chinese porcelains with blue-and-white underglaze decoration.

Jan-Erik Nilsson