6 Japan’s Ceramics

Japan Matters public lecture in 2012/13

Wednesday 20 March 2013 from 2.30 pm
‘Introduction to Japanese Ceramics’
Professor Nicole Rousmaniere
Research Director, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, and Project Curator, Japanese Collections, The British Museum
St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow

This was supported by the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere is the founding Director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures.  She received her PhD from Harvard University in 1998.   Her research interests include, Japanese contemporary craft expression, Japanese manga, early modern to contemporary ceramics in East Asia and trade networks, the history of archaeology and collecting things Japan in Asia and in Europe.   She spent three years on secondment as a Visiting Professor in Cultural Resource Studies at Tokyo University (2006-2009).  From Summer 2011 she is Research Director of the Sainsbury Institute.   She is currently seconded to the British Museum as a curator in the Department of Asia, where she is completing a manuscript for the British Museum Press entitled ‘Four Hundred Years of Japanese Porcelain’ based on the British Museum holdings, to be published in 2013.

The summary of Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere’s talk:

Japan has the oldest ceramics tradition in the world. Russia and China may be older, but their ceramics haven’t been excavated. Japanese ceramics have been excavated. Geographically, Japan is close to Korea, and the island close to Korea is Kyushu, a south-western island of Japan, where many ceramics have been produced. Japan is also close to Taiwan, and there were influences from Southern China on Japanese ceramics. Why did China need Japan? Japan had silver, gold and copper, and Portuguese, Dutch, and English also came to Japan, looking for these.

Jômon (‘cord-marked’) ceramics dates back to 12,500 BC. One of the Jômon pot (c. 5,000 BC) owned by the British Museum since 1870s is recently chosen as one of ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ (BBC Radio 4). The pot was excavated in the late Tokugawa period (1603-1868) and given to a tea master, who added golden lacquer inside, made the rim, and used it as a water pitcher. Who owned it and how it was used are important in understanding Japanese ceramics, together with the question of who made it.

There is an incense jar known as ‘chidori’ (plover), which is a 12th or 13th century Chinese ceramics. This is an ordinary ceramics, with the plover added by Japanese, but it is not ordinary as it was owned by the three powerful warlords in the 16th century Japan, ODA Nobunaga, TOYOTOMI Hideyoshi and TOKUGAWA Ieyasu.

As for the concept of ‘tradition’, there is a difference between the English word and its Japanese equivalent, dentô. In English, tradition refers to a set of patterns happened in the past, while the Japanese dentô is flexible, referring to creativity connected with the past. For example, Tokuda Yasokichi III used the same material as a Kokutani style porcelain (c. 1640s), but applied a new technology, and his resultant work, ‘Dawn’, is referred to as traditional, or dentô teki. Mariko Mori, a contemporary artist whose exhibition at the Royal Academy was just finished, got inspiration from the Jômon period (12,500 BC to 300 BC) and used it in her work. In Japan, people are constantly transforming tradition.

Another characteristic of Japanese ceramics is that low-tech and high-tech have existed together all the time. Haniwa, terracotta produced in Japan during the Kofun period (C.400-538 AD), is, like Jômon, low-tech, but its technique didn’t disappear with the arrival of a high-tech from Korea, known as Sueki, in 4th and 6th century AD.

In the history of Japanese ceramics, you will notice the long tradition of ‘manual’ culture and ‘brand’ culture. There is a manual produced in the late 15th century, providing a guide on which ceramics to buy, which ceramics not to buy, how to display ceramics on shelves, and so on, in detail with drawings. Such manual influenced basic taste in Japan.

The production of porcelain in Japan started in Arita, Kyushu, in 1610, much later than China and Korea. The porcelain produced in Arita was denoted as ‘Made in China’, then the brand in Japan. The Kakiemon-style porcelain, with bright red colour, was developed for exports to Europe. Its production stopped in Japan in the 1700s, but copies of Kakiemon started to be made in Europe.

In the 20th century Japan, there appeared an art potter, such as ITAYA Hazan (1872-1963) and TOMIMOTO Kenkichi (1886-1963). Interestingly people from the Eastern Japan support the former who came from the East, and people in the Western Japan would support the latter who came from the West. You might think that there is one Japan, but that is not true. There are two Japans, East Japan and West Japan, as far as taste for ceramics is concerned.