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NIPPONIA No.32 March 15, 2005
Japanese Earthenware through the Ages
The Japanese have long had a strong affinity for yakimono.* Many types of earthenware come from the kilns, with different colors, all kinds of shapes, and a variety of textures that give pleasure to the hand. Rice bowls, mugs without handles, and chopstick rests join with other types of ceramics to add something special to the Japanese lifestyle. These pages take a look at the Japanese fondness for pottery and porcelain by going back in time and visiting some of the best production centers.
* In Japanese, pottery (toki) and porcelain (jiki) are known collectively as "yakimono."
Written by Katayanagi Kusafu, essayist
A history of the development of Japanese ceramics
Earthenware was first made on the Japanese archipelago about 13,000 years ago. That is before anywhere else in the world, as far as we know today. Large, deep pots used for boiling were the most common. The clay was decorated by rolling or pressing braided cord onto the surface. Because of these cord patterns, earthenware from this time is called jomon doki (jo = cord; mon = pattern, doki = earthenware). About 5,000 years ago, during the Jomon period, some remarkably dynamic designs emerged, including billowing wave ornamentation for pot rims and fanciful patterns covering every part of the exterior.
During the subsequent Yayoi period, rice cultivation and new types of pottery were introduced from the Korean peninsula. Yayoi ware was a part of everyday life, used especially for storage, cooking and eating. It was less decorative than Jomon ware, and its light colors created a soft mood.
Around the beginning of the 5th century, there was a major transformation when new techniques entered Japan, again from the Korean peninsula. Before then, the clay had been heated in bonfires, but the new type of pottery, called Sueki ware, was fired at a high temperature in through-draft (tunnel) kilns built on a slope. Sueki ware is true pottery.
Around the mid-7th century, Japanese potters set out to study Korean and Chinese techniques, and learned how to use glazes and fire the clay at relatively low temperatures. Some glazes from this are deep green, while Nara sansai items stand out with three colors, often reds, yellows and greens. They were used, however, only by the Court, aristocratic families and temples, and by around the 11th century they were no longer made.
The innovations achieved by Sueki ware led to the construction of kilns in many parts of the country. Before long, potters discovered that wood ash in a hot kiln reacts with the clay to make a natural glaze. This prompted them to sprinkle ash from burned plant material intentionally on the clay before firing. This natural ash glaze technique was first developed at Sanage kilns in Owari Province (now the northwestern part of Aichi Prefecture).
Medieval Sueki ware laid the foundation for new techniques and a boom in kiln construction. The six historic pottery towns of JapanSeto, Tokoname, Echizen, Shigaraki, Tanba and Bizendate from this time, and their kilns are still in production. Almost all of them made stoneware with an earthy lookmainly large jars, urns and pots.
Only Seto, located near the ancient Sanage kilns, kept up production of glazed luxury items. Seto potters worked hard to satisfy demand from aristocrats and samurai enamored with pottery and porcelain made in the Sung Chinese style. New colors were added to the lineup, especially yellows with shades of red, brown or green. Potters gained inspiration from items imported from the continent, adapting Sung ideals to suit Japanese tastes for new shapes and patterns for jars, saké bottles, tea containers and rice bowls. Until around the 16th century, Seto was the only center in Japan that continued to produce glazed pottery.