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History of Japanese ceramics in brief

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

As I paint mainly Japanese themed ceramics, we thought it was important to delve into the history of Japanese ceramics and we would like to share this with you in a short summary. In this post we have focused on the technological milestones. In the future we would like to publish further articles on the different styles.

Evolution of clay pots

Ceramic objects first appeared in Japan in the Jomon period (13 000 BC - 300 BC) about 10 000 years ago. The indigenous people of that time were still living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The word 'Jomon' refers to the typical designs of the period, carved into the still-raw clay vessels to look like a coiled rope pressed into the still-virgin clay. Japanese clay pots of the period (Jomon doki) were not yet glazed and were fired at bonfires. Pots made in this way are still porous and poorly waterproof.

In the Yayoi period (300 BC - 300 AD), the spread of agriculture was accompanied by the spread of unglazed clay pots (Yayoi doki).

The appearance of stoneware

The late 4th-early 5th century appeared the technical achievements necessary for the production of stoneware (sueki). The most important of these are the potter's wheel and the kiln. The advent of the kiln made it possible to fire pottery at higher temperatures. In contrast to clay pots, stoneware is waterproof without glaze due to the higher firing temperature and is less porous than earlier clay pots. Pottery was made using this technology until the Heian period (794-1185).

The Nara period (710-794) saw the appearance of the tricolour ceramics of the period, characterised by low-fired glazed ceramics (Nara-sansai).

The Kamakura period (1185-1336) saw the appearance of high-fired ash and iron-glazed ceramics. This technology was predominant until the end of the Muromachi period (1336-1573).

The impact of tea ceremony on the ceramist

The spread of tea ceremony was a major event in the history of Japanese ceramics, which occurred in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1615). This period saw the emergence of new forms and the spread of a view of ceramic art that emphasised the beauty and uniqueness of imperfection. The use of the potter's wheel was eclipsed by the use of hand-shaped ceramics. The resulting 'imperfections' were seen as a positive measure of uniqueness. This approach was of course also reflected in the decoration.

Discovering Japanese porcelain

The next great milestone in Japanese ceramics was the discovery of porcelain. The necessary kaolin-containing clay was first discovered by a Korean ceramist near the city of Arita in 1616. It was here that the main centre for porcelain production was established, which was founded in 1637. During the Edo period (1603-1868), porcelain-making technology spread throughout Japan. One of the most famous types of Arita porcelain is Kakiemon. Kakiemon porcelains are decorated with paint over glaze and are still made in this style today. Its importance is illustrated by the fact that in the 17th century the Dutch East India Company exported large quantities to Europe.

Modern ceramics (mass production and handmade ceramics)

The next big step came in the Meiji period (1868-1912). At this time, increasing mechanisation and the use of plaster moulds made ceramics a mass product. At the same time, however, the individual art of pottery-making was preserved. Its practitioners to this day employ a very wide range of techniques and styles, even in our country alone.

Nowadays, twice a year in May and October, Japanese ceramic artists hold large fairs throughout Japan, where the public can meet practitioners of this art in person.


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