Japan has a
rich tradition of designing, forming and firing some truly unique and
artistically fulfilling ceramics. The earliest Japanese
ceramics date back to the prehistoric Jomon (“cord marked”) period
which extended roughly from 10,500 to 300 BC. The early Jomon
pieces are usually large, cone shaped cooking pots. They have
pointed bodies and the outer surface of the pots are usually stamped or
rolled with rope or cord patterns. These early pieces were formed
by the coil method in which successive coils of clay were placed on
each other. This created a thick, slightly irregular and highly
built-up appearance. Firing took place in open pits or ditches
and since the heat rarely exceed 700 degrees, the pots are low-fired
ceramics or earthenware that are generally largely water-soluble.
Pots of the
Middle Jomon period (2500 to 1500 BC) are distinquished for their
decorations which include ovals, circles, spirals and other shapes that
resemble human or animal faces. Pots of this period are highly
unique and very ornamented. This period and the succeeding later
Jomon period, which lasted until 300, BC saw the introduction of large
numbers of small figurines, which are both animistic as well as
artistic in their execution.
period was succeeded by the Yayoi Period (300 BC – 300 AD). The
Yaoyi culture was probably brought to Japan by tribes that migrated
from the Korean peninsula. The people developed the use of bronze
and were highly developed at the production of ceramics. Yayoi
ceramics may at first seem plain compared to Jomon ceramic forms but
Yaoyi ceramics used finer alluvial clays to produce thinner-walled
delicate shapes that can be very pleasing. Most Yaoyi vessels
were unadorned but rendered in graceful shapes and balance of form with
firing marks in natural colors of black and red.
sixth and seventh centuries Japan was greatly changed by the
importation of Chinese and Korean culture. This brought Buddhism,
a writing system, and new forms of government, medicine and more
complex art forms to Japan. Japanese and Korean ceramics
techniques were assimilated into Japan but changed and adapted to meet
local tastes. More technically advanced forms of pottery,
including Chinese three-color lead glazes on earthenware, Korean higher
temperature firing techniques and a greater range of shapes all came to
be part of Japanese ceramic work.
In 1185, court
rule was supplanted by warrior dominance and highly colorful and
decorative forms of ceramics gave way to more simple, austere
pieces. This change was partly a reflection of the warrior taste
but also a reflection of the influence of Zen Buddhism. The
ceramics of the medieval Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1185-1568) is
characterized by a duality of strength of form and the use of
natural-ash glazes that make each piece unique. Because of the
widespread use of lacquer bowls by the upper classes and wooden bowls
or plates by the common people, the finest medieval ceramics tend to be
storage pots and jars. A particularly famous kiln area of this
period is the Shigaraki kilns, located not far from Kyoto.
characteristic ceramic shape of this period is the “tsubo” which is a
narrow mouthed jar for storage of seed. Many devotees of Japanese
ceramics are more partial to the earlier “tsubo” jars, which tend to be
more irregular and less symmetrical than later pieces. Experts
have written extensively on the “tsubo” which in its simplicity
still yields a beauty that is remarkable. In the west, it is
often felt that so-called functional pieces are not art but
craft. This view is not shared in Japan. A beautifully
crafted textile, ceramic or lacquer is equally as admirable as fine
painting, calligraphy or sculpture.
and ritual of tea have influenced Japanese ceramics extensively.
Tea jars, bowls, caddies, water jars and sometimes vessels for small
portions of food were required for “cha no yu”. Although this is
translated as “the tea ceremony” in the west, a precise Japanese
definition would only be “hot water for tea”. The savoring of
tea, which was greatly influenced by Zen, was well suited to the more
muted beauty of unglazed ceramics. The best of these ceramics
continued to be produced in Shigaraki and also by the great tea master
Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) and his friend Sasaki Chojiro
(1516-1592). Chojiro’s son, also an excellent potter, was awarded
a seal, reading “raku” which translates as “pleasure” by the Shogun
(military leader of Japan).
Raku tea bowls
are considered by some to be the height of Japanese ceramic art.
The pieces are undecorated and modest in shape. The smaller size
helps them fit the hand and convey the warmth of the tea. Each
piece is handcrafted without a wheel, which gives it a slightly
irregular shape. Most have a small, round foot and sides that are
almost straight except for small indentations about halfway from the
top. Raku ceramics are low fired and plucked from the kiln while
still hot. The coloration and texture of the surface depend on
the rapid cooling of the clay.
given to Raku pieces, which are usually designated with a particular
name, is only rivaled by the feelings that some Japanese art
aficionados have for Momoyama period (1568-1600). Although the
Momoyama period was very short, a form of pottery called Shino that
developed during this period and which displays the rich decorative
beauty of the late sixteenth century is highly regarded for its form
period ended with the ascension of the Tokugawa family Shoguns and the
new centralization of power in Edo (now Tokyo). During this
period, Japan cut itself off from the outside world and governmental
control was often heavy and oppressive. Despite this, the arts
flourished. Many forms of ceramics were produced, ranging from
muted tea wares to colorful porcelains. A master of this period
was Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743). Kenzan made a great range of pieces
in many different shapes and styles. His designs include
overglaze enamels and underglaze paintings in iron washes.
Ultimately Kenzan ware became so famous that the name is now used to
denote a certain kind of high-quality decorative pottery that may or
may not have been made by the master.
acclaimed porcelain of this period is “ko-kutani” (Old Kutani).
“Ko-kutani” ware was created in the seventeenth-century and is known
for its bold and imaginative designs, which frequently utilize a
special range of colors in overglaze enamels. The most admired of
these wares are large plates, which are fully decorated. Although
there is some controversy where these wares were actually made, there
is much evidence that they were formed and fired in Arita in
Kyushu. Arita was also known for many other wares including
blue-and-white. These wares which are greatly influenced by
Chinese and Korean ceramics became extremely popular in Japan.
The combination of the pure white color of the porcelain and the
elegance of the blue underglaze have been thought to greatly suit food
dishes and cups of all kinds. Japanese potters and porcelain
workers often used new shapes and more freely sketched underglaze
designs in their blue-and-white which give them a beauty much varied
from the early Korean or Chinese traditions. Age of individual
pieces is often difficult to determine since blue and white porcelain
was so continuous from the 17th century on. Age may, however, be
of less importance to many Japanese ceramics fanciers than the quality,
charm and aesthetic union of all the creative forces that the best of
this work embodies.
opening of Japan to the West led to the end of the long-lasting Edo
period and the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912). This was
an era of change throughout most of Japanese society. Despite the
change of this period Japanese artisans were able to create pieces that
continued previous traditions. Among the best known artisans of
this period was the Buddhist nun Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875).
These pieces often include not only the art of ceramics but also poetry
and calligraphy, which she engraved onto the pieces.
century saw a further flowering of Japanese ceramics art. Perhaps
one of the greatest names of this period was Kitaoji Rosanjin
(1883-1959 who is sometimes compared to the Japanese Master
Kenzan. Over the course of his lifetime, Rosanjin produced a
truly awe-inspiring range of ceramics. He is thought to have
produced twenty thousand ceramics, mostly at his six kilns in
Kita-Kamakura. Rosanjin’s pieces have a range of use of different
clays, firing techniques, and glazes that cover virtually all
traditions of Japanese ceramic art.
To this day,
ceramics remains a vital and exciting form of Japanese art. In
contrast to most countries where potters have a difficult time earning
a living, Japan has tens of thousands of successful potters.
Historical and regional traditions of ceramic production continue to
flourish and tea bowls and other pieces for “cha no yu” continue to be
made and used. Additionally, innovative ceramic sculpture with
western influence and ultra modern style also flourishes. Japan
continues to maintain a high degree of ceramic artistry, which is at
the same time very traditional and very modernistic