Last Updated:Sep 3, 2015

The First 100 Years of Japanese Porcelain

The Toguri Museum of Art offers a yearlong look at the evolution of Imari ware.

The Toguri Museum of Art, a private porcelain collection tucked away in a quiet corner of Shibuya, is a must-visit for any admirer of ceramics. Assembled in the postwar era to preserve fine Asian ceramics for future generations, it contains some 7,000 works of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean porcelain, around 100 of which are on public display at any one time.

Alice Gordenker
Alice Gordenker
Photo: Jennifer Pastore
This spring the museum launched a series showcasing the evolution of Japanese porcelain from its beginnings in 17th century Kyushu. “Early Imari Ware,” which ran April 4th through June 21st, focused on the origins of Japanese porcelain while also giving an overview of later-developed styles and techniques. English speakers enjoyed a mid-June tour by museum guide Alice Gordenker, shown below explaining the characteristics of early Imari ware and how to properly handle it.

While considered a Japanese art, Imari ware has global story, one driven by international tastes, techniques, and markets. It got its start in what is today Saga Prefecture, when Korean potters brought to Japan by returning forces from a military expedition discovered the raw materials necessary for porcelain. The name comes from the port from which finished works were shipped.

Early Imari ware and its imperfections
Early Imari ware and its imperfections
Photo: Jennifer Pastore

Early Imari ware was often misshapen due to the softness of the clay and retained blemishes of ash and dirt from firing. While flawed, these works boasted cheerful and energetic designs.

Chinese-influenced rabbit design
Chinese-influenced rabbit design
Photo: Jennifer Pastore

Chinese designs and techniques were favored. Dishes like this, with a rabbit made by blowing glaze around a stencil and adding details by brush, are also seen in Chinese porcelain.

Imari ware's popularity spread to the world of the tea ceremony
Imari ware's popularity spread to the world of the tea ceremony
Photo: Jennifer Pastore

The floral and kikkomon hexagonal designs of these Edo-period tea jars were achieved with the sometsuke (cobalt under-glazing) method.

Koshikiguchi cylindrically necked jar
Koshikiguchi cylindrically necked jar
Photo: Jennifer Pastore

Early Imari ware also showed the influence of Korean techniques on Japanese porcelain, as seen in the faceting of this 14-sided jar from the early 17th century.

Ko-Kutani dish
Ko-Kutani dish
Photo: Jennifer Pastore

In the mid-17th century, overglaze enamels were introduced from China, allowing for new colorful designs. This vivid style later came to be known as Ko-Kutani .

Jar with Kakiemon design
Jar with Kakiemon design
Photo: Jennifer Pastore

Further advances in porcelain manufacturing and decorating techniques produced the Kakiemon style, recognizable by the milky white porcelain and intricate designs of this late-17th century jar.

Plate with European-influenced design
Plate with European-influenced design
Photo: Jennifer Pastore

When civil unrest in China disrupted exports of Chinese porcelain to Europe in the mid-17th century, Dutch traders turned to Japan as an alternative source. Europeans sought pieces with a lot of red, like on this 18th century bowl.

Nabeshima ware plate
Nabeshima ware plate
Photo: Jennifer Pastore

This plate is an example of Nabeshima ware, the culmination of Imari style and skill. These works were produced only to be given as gifts from the Nabeshima clan to the Shogun and other high-ranking dignitaries.

The second exhibition in the series focuses on the Ko-Kutani style and runs through September 23rd. English-language tours for this and future exhibitions can be arranged upon request. To inquire, please see the museum’s website: http://www.toguri-museum.or.jp/english/index.php.

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Jennifer Pastore

Jennifer Pastore

Jennifer Pastore is a writer, editor, and translator for Tokyo Art Beat. Her thoughts on the Japanese art scene can also be found at artscape Japan and in other publications.

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