Japanese Pottery: A tale as old as time

Japanese pottery is one of the oldest craft forms of Japan, dating as far back as the Neolithic period. Japan has a vast, successful history of pottery with kilns producing an abundance of earthenware, pottery, stoneware, glazed pottery, glazed stoneware, porcelain and blue-and-white ware to high acclaim across the world. Let’s take a look at the journey that Japanese pottery has taken over time to become the style that we know today.

Jōmon – Yayoi Period

The earliest pottery was said to originate during the Neolithic period, but it wasn’t until the Jōmon period that Japanese pottery began to take on a more extravagant style. During this period, Japanese pottery was formed using coiling clay ropes and fired in an open fire whilst being decorated with hand-impressed rope patterns. This point of pottery history became known for its highly flamboyant style, though as Japanese pottery entered the Yayoi period, a new style of earthenware characterised by simple, minimal patterns was introduced.

Kofun – Heian Period

During the Kofun period, Japanese pottery making techniques started to adapt and the first introductions of the potter’s wheel and Anagama kiln were brought into the Japanese pottery world. These new processes led to the first productions of Japanese stoneware pottery. Stoneware pottery was remarkably popular throughout Japan, with its function changing vastly over time. Originally funerary ware during the Nara and Heian periods, stoneware then became an elite piece of tableware before being used as a ritual vessel for Buddhist altars. As Japanese pottery entered into the Heian period, simple green lead glazes were produced for temples through new kiln techniques introduced by the Tang Dynasty of China.

Kamakura – Muromachi Period

Japanese pottery began to develop even more during the Kamakura period, with glazing techniques becoming more popular and widespread. Kiln technology was improved leading to the founding of the ‘Six Old Kilns’; Shigaraki, Tamba, Bizen, Tokoname, Echizen, and Seto. The Seto kiln was the Japanese pottery leader at the time, producing new glaze techniques and colours that were often imitations of Chinese ceramics. During the Muromachi period, a number of Japanese monks who travelled to monasteries in China brought pieces of pottery that would later be imitated by Seto kilns and were highly valued for tea ceremonies. Similarly, the sophisticated Jian ware from China was later developed as tenmoku within Japanese pottery.

Azuchi-Momoyama – Sengoku period

The Azuchi-Momoyama period saw an abundance of imported Chinese pottery from greenware to white porcelain, with Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese pottery regarded as sophisticated items to be used in upper-class tea ceremonies. To meet the altering tastes of the time, Japanese pottery began to quickly adapt. As Japan entered the Sengoku period, Buddhism saw tea masters introduced to more changes with tastes favouring the style of Korean tea bowls and native Japanese pottery over that of sophisticated Chinese porcelain. During the invasion of Korea in 1592, new and exciting pottery techniques were introduced from the country’s artistic pottery makers. As tradition suggests, Korea discovered a source of porcelain clay within Japan which lead to the first production of traditional Japanese porcelain. The Korean potters also brought improved kiln technology, leading to the use of Satsuma, Hagi, Karatsu, Takatori, Agano and Arita kilns.

Edo period

As Japanese pottery entered into the Edo period, global conflict led to the damage of many traditional kilns. In the remaining Arita kilns, Chinese potter refugees introduced new, more refined porcelain techniques and enamel glazes to Japanese pottery. By 1658, the Dutch East Indian Company turned to Japan in search of blue-and-white porcelain to sell in Europe. To cope with demand, Arita kilns had to quickly expand their capacity, allowing them to export vast quantities of Japanese pottery and porcelain to Europe and Asia. At the end of the Edo period, white porcelain clay was discovered in more areas of Japan and was traded domestically, letting potters move more freely and create explore different designs and techniques.

Meiji – Taishō – Shōwa Era

During the Meiji era, Japanese Pottery was under threat from increasing Westernisation. Many traditional potters broke away and most artisans lost their source of income. As Japan descended into the Shōwa era, the folk art movement began. With Japan becoming rapidly urbanised, the artists of this era began to study traditional glazing techniques to preserve the native wares that were in danger of disappearing. That being said, Japanese pottery struggled further during the Shōwa era with the Pacific war; all resources went towards the war effort, leaving the production and development of Japanese pottery in serious decline.

Heisei era to present

As time passed, kilns returned to producing traditional Japanese pottery. Most village wares were made anonymously by local potters for practical purposes and these local styles tended to shut out present influences and instead focused on the traditional. Artist potters began to experiment at the Kyoto and Tokyo arts universities to recreate traditional porcelain and its unique decorations under the influence of ceramic teachers. Today, many master potters no longer work at major or ancient kilns and instead make classic pottery all across Japan.

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