One of Japan's oldest art forms, ceramics, reaches back to the Neolithic period (ca. 10,000 B.C.), when the earliest soft earthenware was coil-made, decorated by hand-impressed rope patterns (Jomon ware), and baked in the open. Continental emigrants of the third century B.C. introduced the use of the wheel along with the metal age (Yayoi), and eventually (in the third to fourth centuries A.D.), a tunnel kiln in which stoneware fired at high temperatures embellished with natural ash glaze was produced. Medieval kilns enabled more refined production of stoneware, which was still produced in the late twentieth century at a few famous sites, especially in central Honshu around the city of Seto, the wares of which were so widely used that Seto-mono became the generic term for ceramics in Japan. The overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Korean campaigns of the late sixteenth century were dubbed the "ceramic wars," since the importation of Korean potters appeared to be the Koreans' major contribution. These potters introduced a variety of new techniques and styles in their artifacts that were greatly admired for the tea ceremony. They also discovered in northern Kyushu the proper ingredients needed to produce porcelain and were soon dazzling the guests at daimyo banquets with the first Japanese-made porcelain.
The modern masters of these famous traditional kilns still bring the ancient formulas in pottery and porcelain to new heights of achievement at Shiga, Ige, Karatsu, Hagi, and Bizen. Yamamoto Masao of Bizen and Miwa Kyusetsu of Hagi were designated as mukei bunkazai. Only a half-dozen potters were so honored by 1989 either as representatives of famous kiln wares or as creators of superlative techniques in glazing or decoration; two groups were designated for preserving the wares of distinguished ancient kilns.
In the old capital of Kyoto, the Raku family continued to produce the famous rough tea bowls that had so delighted Hideyoshi. At Mino, continued to be made to reconstruct the classic formulas of Momoyama-era Seto-type tea wares at Mino, such as the famous Oribe copper-green glaze and Shino ware's prized milky glaze. Artist potters experimented endlessly at the Kyoto and Tokyo arts universities to recreate traditional porcelain and its decorations under such outstanding ceramic teachers as Fujimoto Yoshimichi, a mukei bunkazai. Ancient porcelain kilns around Arita in Kyushu were still maintained by the lineage of the famous Sakaida Kakiemon XIV and Imaizume Imaiemon XIII, hereditary porcelain makers to the Nabeshima clan; both were heads of groups designated mukei bunkazai.
By the end of the 1980s, many master potters no longer worked at major or ancient kilns, but were making classic wares in various parts of Japan or in Tokyo, a notable example being Tsuji Seimei, who brought his clay from Shiga but potted in the Tokyo area. A number of artists were engaged in reconstructing famous Chinese styles of decoration or glazes, especially the blue-green celadon and the watery-green qingbai. One of the most beloved Chinese glazes in Japan is the chocolate-brown tenmoku glaze that covered the peasant tea bowls brought back from Southern Song China (in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) by Zen monks. For their Japanese users, these chocolate-brown wares embodied the Zen aesthetic of wabi (rustic simplicity).
Interest in the humble art of the village potter was revived in a folk movement of the 1920s by such master potters as Hamada Shoji and Kawai Kanjiro. These artists studied traditional glazing techniques to preserve native wares in danger of disappearing. The kilns at Tamba, overlooking Kobe. A number of institutions came under the aegis of the Cultural Properties Protection Division.be, continued to produce the daily wares used in the Tokugawa period, while adding modern shapes. Most of the village wares were made anonymously by local potters for utilitarian purposes. Local styles, whether native or imported, tended to be continued without alteration into the present. In Kyushu, kilns set up by Korean potters in the sixteenth century, such as at Koishibara and its offshoot at Onta, perpetuated sixteenth-century Korean peasant wares. In Okinawa, the production of village ware continued under several leading masters, with Kaneshiro Jiro honored as a mukei bunkazai.
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