Wading into the calm waters of a simple Japanese pottery inquiry—what are the most popular styles of Japanese pottery?—we were nearly caught in the riptide of over ten thousand years of history! Fear not, though, we’ve made it to shore. Quick disclaimer: Though there are technical differences between Japanese pottery and what we call Japanese “ceramics,” we’ll be using these terms interchangeably. There’s a lot of ground/water to cover, and we’d rather not get sucked out further into an unforgiving sea of translation semantics.
Ancient Japanese pottery, originally from China, is some of the oldest in the world. Archaeological investigation of the earliest ancient Japanese pottery revealed cord imprints in the clay. The pattern has since become the namesake of the prehistoric Jōmon period of 14,000 to 300 BCE. Over time, this ancient Japanese pottery has evolved into countless Japanese pottery types. The natural variety of clay, different exposure to Chinese and Korean stylistic developments, unique firing techniques, local taste, and creative expression have bonded into a complex hyperlocalization of Japanese ceramics.
Many Japanese pottery types are named for the towns in which they were developed, and some are even named after the specific kilns in which they are fired. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the more iconic Japanese pottery types from both aesthetic and historical perspectives. For a quick overview of what that first, cord-patterned earthenware hath wrought, dip your toe in: the water’s fine!
Arita ware is a kind of catch-all term for all Japanese pottery produced in the area around the town of Arita. In the world of Japanese ceramics, Arita ware sets a high standard: unlike heavier and more porous Japanese pottery types, Arita ware is generally porcelain, which is denser, thinner, and more durable.
In the 1500s, Arita ware generally copied the extremely popular blue and white designs of Chinese porcelain. Thanks to global trade over the centuries, the Dutch East India Company would eventually spread this style as far as western Europe. Today, the pairing of cobalt blue and white is not just emblematic of Chinese and mimicked Japanese pottery designs: they are ubiquitous the world over in all manner of patterns.
Among Japanese pottery types, Kutani ware is one of the most vibrant and busy. Over a bluish-white “canvas,” Kutani ware artists create intricate patterns with bold colors. Red, green, yellow, purple, and dark blue are all still used in contemporary designs of this Japanese pottery. Kutani ware—smooth, precisely drawn, and painted in occasionally riotous colors—could not contrast more with the rough-hewn Japanese pottery types favored elsewhere. They closely mimicked much of the ceramics coming from China at the time.
For collectors, these “heavily inspired by” designs can make identification quite the challenge. Japanese ceramics are already “stamped” by irregular standards, which makes Japanese pottery marks very difficult to identify. Sometimes the individual potter’s name will be used, but just as often, one will see the name of a city, shipping company, or even kiln. Occasionally, Japanese pottery marks will even be fraudulent! In the 19th century, ceramicists were already trying to pass off their Arita ware as the valuable Ming dynasty pottery of the 1500s.
If Arita and Kutani ware represent a polished, ornate style of Japanese pottery, Shigaraki ware is an excellent poster child for all the rough-hewn, organic, simple and imperfect Japanese pottery types. Kintsugi is the art of highlighting in gold repairs to broken Japanese ceramics, an honoring of imperfection and the life the pottery has led. We see a connection between the recent rise of Western interest in the celebratory reuse of kintsugi and a general fascination with the imperfect: coarser textures, unglazed surfaces, and an apparent “unfinished” of Japanese pottery types– all of which you’ll find in Shigaraki ware.
This style of Japanese pottery is often used in Japanese tea ceremonies. As one gazes upon a single, partially glazed Shigaraki cup, they can reflect on the origins of this vessel, the beauty of an utterly singular object crafted of water, earth, and fire. Before tea masters declared Shigaraki the Japanese pottery for tea ceremonies, though, Shigaraki kilns were also used for heartier everyday objects like mortars and bottles.
Unlike other Japanese pottery types, Mashikoyaki is a relatively modern development in the world of Japanese ceramics. Developed in the 1800s, this style of simple, tough, and visually appealing Japanese pottery quickly rose in popularity for everyday use. Mashikoyaki is made of a heavy, and textured iron-rich clay and traditionally covered in a single, appealing glaze. Popular colors were off-white, matte black, and a pale jade. To this day, you can purchase a Mashikoyaki tea cup, small plate, or even a 20th century coffee mug. For a trip back in time, one can even cook two cups of rice in Mashikoyaki, in this Donabe Ceramic Rice Cooker!