Japanese Ceramic: Prehistoric to Modern
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.
The Jomon 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.
During the 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.
The most 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.
The enjoyment 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.
The adulation 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 and beauty.
Decorated Stoneware and Porcelain
The Momoyama 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.
Another 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.
Modern Japanese Ceramics
The forced 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.
The twentieth 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.