Background of Japanese ceramics


The Far East has made excellent pottery for over 4,000 years.

Until the ports of that area were opened for export and import, a curtain of silence retained the industry. Only a few explorers and treasure seekers had ventured much into the Far East countries before mid-1800.

Around 1775, Louis XV accumulated a collection of Japanese porcelain. Due to spice and tea trade, the acquisition of items other than these two materials was limited.

As dealers became aware of the possible market for porcelain, more was acquired. Popular trade names around 1800 were Imari, Satsuma and others named after famous families and manufacturers of that era.

Individual cups. Tea drinking by the Orientals was a communal affair, all sharing the same bowl of tea, wiping the bowl rim between each partaker. The Europeans introduced the use of individual cups for drinking tea.

Satsuma is one of the several most renown porcelains. It was named after the area in Japan were it was first introduced during the Edo period from 1615-1867. The art form is well known due to its architectural forms, and the popularity of this ware was copied on other porcelain products.

The main feature of Satsuma is the ivory glaze over a white body allowing ample space for relief decor and glaze enamel. As is true of any popular item, imitated copies were reproduced thereby creating less quality and a poor representation of previous porcelain of expert workmanship.

Due to the Japanese attack on the United States and other countries, material produced in Japan was a dollar a large box, no matter the quality or age.

Color, image. A feature to be admired concerning Japanese porcelain was its skilled coloring and imagery. The decoration remained within limits and the embodiment was next to none.

Imari is unfair to their artisan accomplishments. Traders in Europe suggested to the Japanese exporters what was acceptable to their customers. Therefore the design was altered and large amounts of color were applied.

The true porcelain of Japan used color sparingly. This application of exuberance offended the fine Japanese artisans. Some of the finest Japanese porcelain was produced in late 1700 and early 1800.

Perfection. Due to large pottery operations and only small businesses producing porcelain, a wide diversity of styles, designs, paste and glaze qualities were made. There wasn’t much production due to it being done by hand.

Therefore a high standard of perfection occurred.

The body of the Japanese ware also varied in composition, thickness and color. The clays were not as easy to mold compared to the loam used by the Chinese. Due to the body density, Japanese porcelain was usually fired to a biscuit stage, and then fired again after glazing.

This second firing often caused the ware to warp and crack, therefore a thick body was necessary.

Glazes. Many ware finishes were an underglaze of blue, paintings were enamel, gilding, earth colors, various colors of glazes, fretwork and ribbing. The artisans employed only a select amount of colors and most of the decor was conservative and constrained.

The objects painted were used in a traditional and representative manner. Nature and human subjects were combined with symbols customary to their religious understandings.

Unless marked “handpainted” or of quite old production, many pieces since 1900 were print transfer decorated. A close examination may assist distinguishing the decals used. A magnifying glass can reveal the print screening of such decoration.

Marks. Prior to 1900, a tariff act required all materials to be marked with its origin. “Nippon,” meaning Japan, was used from 1892 through World War I.

“Made In Japan” was used after World War I, although small items such as children’s tea sets may not be marked.

At that time, the shipping carton carried the “Made In Japan” mark, and they also began to use paper labels.

Wares in the United States were marked; however, Japanese wares to other countries often remained unmarked.

Plastic has replaced the ceramic business. Thus, almost any pottery item, large or small, has become a collectible, although usually not worth much.

Get our Top Stories in Your Inbox

Next step: Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.