Japan's first porcelain: Arita ware (有田焼, Arita Yaki)
Updated: Mar 29, 2022
On your way to Arita (Saga Prefecture), especially between Arita and Kami-Arita Station, you will notice smoke flying up towards the sky. But no panic: the smoke belongs with the city view, as it comes from the kilns that constantly produce the city’s pride: Arita ware. Boasting a 400-year history, Arita Yaki is Japan's first porcelain.
History To track its origins, we must go back to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the military leader who first unified Japan. During the 17th century, he launched several military campaigns against neighbouring Korea, bringing back Korean craftsmen. Among them was Yi Sam-pyeong (known in Japan as Kanagae Sanpei) who, in 1616, discovered Kaolin clay on Izumiyama (Izumi Mountain) in Arita, and proceeded to produce the first fine white porcelain in Japan.
At that time, due to the fact that ships carrying Arita ware departed from the port of Imari, it became known overseas, especially among the court and nobility of Europe, as “Imari ware”. Until the beginning of the Edo Period (17th century), Chinese porcelain was vastly popular in Japan. However, the transition from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty made Chinese exports unstable, which led Japan to focus on in-house production. From the mid-17th century, the Dutch East India Company started exporting large quantities of porcelain ware around the world. Even during the Sakoku (the isolationist foreign policy of the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate), the Dutch were the only ones allowed to trade with Japan, thus they were able to keep introducing Japanese porcelain to the European market, where it became a status symbol for the wealthy. After its introduction at the Paris Exposition in 1867, Arita ware’s popularity increased significantly. In 1870, German chemists were invited to Arita to share Western chemical and industrial processes with Japanese potters, allowing Japanese manufacture to boost even more.
Styles Imari-Arita ware can be divided into three groups.
The first is “Shoki Imari” or “Early Imari”, blue-and-white porcelain made until the 1640s. In the Edo period, overglaze enamels were added on top of the blue and white porcelain, creating the style known as “Ko-Imari” or “Old Imari”. This new style was characterized by:
- Wucai: “gosai” in Japanese, it means five enamels or "five color ware" and it is the style of decorating Chinese wares in mostly three enamels (red, green and yellow);
- Kinrande: gold color added to Chinese wucai porcelain, a technique developed during the Genroku period (1688-1704).
The second is the “Kakiemon” ware, the first enameled ware to appear. It uses a milky white for its base, and the designs drawn atop are in the Kakiemon style, realized for the first time by the renown potter Sakaida Kakiemon and characterized by red, yellow, green, and blue colors that delicately portray Japanese motifs of the yamato-e style, such as flowers and birds.
In the 18th century, many areas across Europe started making porcelain that imitated the Kakiemon design, such as Meissen porcelain (Germany) and Chantilly porcelain (France).
The third is the “Nabeshima”, characterized by its bluish-white background. It was not meant for the common people: instead, it was produced for the Nabeshima clan, Lords of Saga Domain, to be used as gifts for the Tokugawa Shogunate. The clan hid their kiln up an isolated mountain in Okawachi, so that their production methods would not be revealed. Unlike most Arita ware, which used Chinese themes in their decorations, Nabeshima ware kept their design more traditionally Japanese.
Arita ware is so thin and light that it feels almost like glass, yet it is solid. It is also durable and does not absorb water.
The surface is such a clear white that Europeans aristocrats even nicknamed it “white gold.”
Being shaped from special clay made from pottery stone, glazed with yuyaku (a glaze that creates a glossy, multicolored finish on the surface of the clay) and then fired at the extremely high temperature of 1,300°C for over seventeen hours.
1. Forming: creating a form out of the clay is a process called “crafting” (saiku, 細工). First, the clay is kneaded in order to remove air bubbles that may cause cracks during the firing stage. Next, the clay is shaped using techniques that vary according to the size of the piece, with the use of a potter’s wheel being the most common. Gypsum molds are instead used in case of big pieces.
2. Bisque-firing: after letting it dry, the piece is fired at a relatively low temperature of about 900 degrees in order to strengthen it.
3. Underglaze: specialized artisans paint the outline of the pattern with “gosu” (cobalt pigment) and then fill the designs with more paint.
4. Glazing: the piece is dipped in milk-white glaze that makes the pottery glossy once fired.
5. Firing: the pot is fired to a temperature of over 1300 degrees.
6. Overglaze decoration: a variety of coloured enamels (red, green, yellow or gold) are added on the surface.
7. Glaze firing: the porcelain is fired again at a low temperature of about 700-800 degrees, in order to bring out the colors and to make them more durable.
Arita yaki today
Enriched over time by a mélange of cultures (Korean origins, Chinese competition, and German advanced science), Arita ware is today one of the traditional handicraft of Japan, expressing a versatile beauty that is uniquely Japanese. Still associated with wealth and tradition, fine Arita porcelain is used at some of the most luxurious restaurants in Japan and in the world. The Arita region in South-western Japan is still home to the finest porcelain masters, as well as to the unique Arita College of Ceramics that forms the aspiring ceramists of tomorrow. Finally, every year during Golden Week, from April 29th to May 5th, the city hosts Japan's largest ceramic fair counting nearly 500 individual porcelain stalls.