Overview of Ceramics
Japan has a long history of ceramic production going back to 10,000 BC. Prehistoric peoples in the Jomon (ca. 10,000 BC-ca. 300 BC) and Yayoi (ca. 300 BC-ca. AD 300) periods made highly distinctive earthenware vessels and ceremonial implements: Jomon earthenware, characterized by cord-impressed patterns, and Yayoi earthenware, which was finer and minimally decorated. In the Kofun period (ca. 300-710), the most distinctive ceramic items were haniwa clay figurines used to decorate the burial mounds of chieftains. Korean immigrants helped Japan develop its first high-fired glazed pottery (sue ware) in the 5th and 6th centuries. Early suppliers to the Japanese court concentrated their efforts on imitating the celadons of China. By the 12th century, the main center of ceramic production shifted to Seto, where there was a large supply of kaolin-like clay, and under the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333), the kilns produced imitations of a variety of Chinese glazed wares from celadon to tenmoku. Korean potters were brought to Japan at the end of the 16th century to improve kilns under domain sponsorship. One Korean potter, Ri Sampei (Yi Sam-p'young; 1579-1655), is credited with discovering porcelain clay in the Arita area of Kyushu,making it possible to reproduce the fine Ming porcelains of China. A healthy export industry in blue and white and polychrome porcelains for the European market was subsequently developed through the Dutch East India Company.
Without the influence of tea ceremony aesthetics from the 16th century, Japan's ceramic art could well have stopped at utilitarian and purely decorative ware. But the Zen-influenced tea ceremony created a taste for rustic, simple, and asymmetrical pottery, epitomized by the simple utilitarian wares of early Japanese kilns. Tea ceremony ceramics encompassed unglazed stoneware such as Bizen and Tokoname; natural ash glaze ceramics such as Shigaraki and Iga; plain low-temperature glazed wares such as Raku; somber, minimally decorated wares such as Karatsu, Hagi and Shino; and also some highly decorated wares such as the abstract Oribe and ornamental Kyoto ware. The elegant and poetic ornamentation of the latter developed especially under the influence of Nonomura Ninsei (fl mid-17th century) and Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743). Kutani ware polychrome porcelains, distinguished by the use of rich green, yellow and red pigments, were a popular product of the Kaga domain (now Ishikawa Prefecture), rivaling the Arita kilns of Kyushu.
Although modernization after the Meiji period (1868-1912) brought mass production, tea ceremony practitioners and establishments specializing in chakaiseki tea ceremony cuisine and kaiseki formal cuisine have ensured a small but staunch market for the diverse range of regional ceramics, thus keeping their techniques alive. The leader of the folkcraft movement, Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), also provided impetus to ceramic production by drawing public attention to Japan's rich legacy of functional pottery for daily use produced all over the country, notably Onta ware in Kyushu. His friend Hamada Shoji (1894-1978) , a potter in Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture embodied the spirit of the unknown craftsman extolled by Yanagi, and as a result of his influence Mashiko became a major center of folk ceramic production.
Owing to the great variety of ceramic styles developed in Japan, throwing, glazing, decorating and firing techniques all reached high levels, and continue to attract the interest of ceramic artists around the world. Contemporary Japanese ceramic artists draw both on their own traditions and those of the West for inspiration.