The Three Great Porcelains of Japan: Their Histories and Characters
Japanese porcelain can be divided into three primary categories, and though some historical details remain uncertain, today we’d like to talk about what makes these porcelains unique and in what fashion they remain to this day in Japan.
Arita-yaki (“-yaki” refers to fired goods like pottery and porcelain) is a general term for the porcelain made in the area around Arita Town in Saga Prefecture. Fired at temperatures of 1300 °C for over 17 hours, it is a sturdy and durable ceramic good. Long ago, Arita-yaki was shipped from the port of Imari in Saga, so it is also called Imari-yaki, which is the name by which it became famous overseas. Additionally, Imari-yaki created in the Edo period is called of Ko-imari (old Imari) and fetches quite a high price as antique porcelain.
Imari-yaki is notable for its brightly colored patterns, and within it is a sub-category called Nabeshima-yaki, a style of porcelain luxurious even by Imari standards. Painted by hand in red, green, and gold, these three colors are held to be vividly and quintessentially Japanese.
Accounting for over 50% of pottery and porcelain in Japan, Mino-yaki refers to the ceramics made in the areas around Tajimi and Toki Cities in Gifu Prefecture. Examples of these ceramics have even been discovered from the Kofun period (250 to 538 CE).
Mino-yaki doesn’t have a set style, and it could be said that it is characterized by a lack of specific character. Owing to that, there are many types of Mino-yaki in existence.
Pictured is a Mino-yaki bowl called Unohanagaki which, together with Fujisan, is one of only two bowls domestically produced in Japan designated as national treasures. An item of exceptional rarity, this bowl demonstrates very well the Japanese aesthetic ideal of wabi-sabi (the beauty of transience and imperfection).
Made in Aichi Prefecture’s Seto City, which neighbors the region where Mino-yaki is produced, Seto-yaki is said to have been brought over from China. From the Kamakura to the Azuchi-Momoyama period, Seto City was Japan’s largest producer of porcelain and pottery, to the point that “Seto-yaki” became a byword for porcelain. Even now, pottery and porcelain are called setomono (“things from Seto”) by the Japanese as a general term, who immediately think of fired ceramics when they hear it. However, Seto-yaki became almost too famous and in the public mind remains as less a brand and more pottery for everyday people.
What makes Seto-yaki special is its unique glaze, which is thick and almost more a layering of glass than a traditional glaze, making it all the more durable. Owing to this style of glazing, there are many examples of Seto-yaki that are light green, and hearing “Seto-yaki” conjures up an image of greenness in the Japanese imagination.
On a note, Seto City is also the home of the maneki-neko, the cheerful cat that beckons good fortune with one uplifted paw. This is the reason that neighboring Tokoname City is so famous for maneki-neko. Currently, these charming cat statues can be found in a variety of forms, with the one pictured here a standard example of the Tokoname type (face, golden coin, overall shape, etc.)