Satsuma Ware Guide: Japanese Ceramics (Porcelain)

Satsuma ware

With a 400+ year history, Satsuma ware is a style of porcelain with immense popularity in Europe and across the globe. Made in mainland Japan’s most southern prefecture of Kagoshima, it is split between the opulent White Satsuma and common tableware Black Satsuma. This legendary art form is a traditional Japanese craft registered by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

The History of Satsuma Ware

Satsuma ware (Satsuma-yaki) is a form of pottery that originated from a place called Satsuma, in what is now Kagoshima Prefecture in the southern part of the island of Kyushu. It is believed to have been created around the year 1598. At that time, the commander of the Satsuma Domain, Shimazu Yoshihiro (whose statue is pictured below), on returning from a military campaign in Korea, brought a group of skilled potters back to Japan with him. Although the potters numbered only a few dozen, the craft spread to various parts of the region.

Statue of Shimazu Yoshihiro

Taking advantage of the blessings of their natural surroundings, the potters soon developed their own styles of Satsuma ware. Various schools or styles of pottery now exist under the umbrella of “Satsuma ware,” including the “Katano style,” “Ryumonji style,” “Naeshirogawa style,”  “Nishimochida style,” and “Hirasa style.” Each style is based in a different region and features a distinct appearance. It is this variety within the world of Satsuma ware that makes it so interesting.

Interestingly, Satsuma ware first became known to the rest of the world quite a while ago. In 1867, the International Exposition was held in Paris, where Satsuma ware was featured in its own exhibition. This was the moment that the name “Satsuma” took flight in Europe. It seems that many people were captivated by the charm of the pottery, even though it was on display so far from its native country. 

The Characteristics of Satsuma Ware

Satsuma ware can be divided into two broad categories: “Shiro Satsuma” and “Kuro Satsuma.” In the world of ceramics, the surface of the ceramic work is often covered with a glaze known as “yuyaku” that, when fired, takes on a glass-like sheen. These two categories of Satsuma ware differ in the type of glaze used.

Shiro Satsuma (pictured above) is typically made with clear, colorless or pale yellow glaze. Another common characteristic is the fine cracks that appear on the surface, called “kannyu.” Shiro Satsuma is also sometimes referred to as “Shiromon.” The term “Noble Shiromon” (Koki-na-Shiromon) is a testament to the historical value of the pottery, as it was formerly the property of only the nobility and was unavailable to the general public. The pottery often features extravagant, colorful designs and is recognized overseas as its own art form.

On the other hand, Kuro Satsuma, or “Kuromon” is most commonly treated with a colored glaze. In contrast to Shiromon, this kind of pottery was called “The People’s Kuromon” (Shomin-no-Kuromon) and was loved and used by the masses. Kuromon is used to make a variety of common tableware, among which the “kurojoga” tea pot stands out in particular. This earthenware vessel (shown on the left side of the picture above) is used for heating shochu (a kind of Japanese distilled spirit). By delving into the details of various wares, it’s possible to glimpse into history and imagine scenes from an older time, such as common Japanese people enjoying a hot drink as a part of their daily lives.

Satsuma Ware Today

With a rich history of more than 400 years, Satsuma ware continues to live on, with a number of Satsuma ware workshops still existing today. The styles that have been passed down vary, but include several of the aforementioned schools, including the oft-gifted Katano style, Kuromon-specializing Ryumonji style, and the elaborately gold-painted Naeshirogawa style. All are made using different techniques and are worth exploring.

One workshop to focus your attention on is the famous pottery workshop Chin Jukan Kiln, located in the Miyama region of Kagoshima Prefecture. It has continued the legacy of Naeshirogawa pottery from the time when Satsuma ware was created to the present day. Although the techniques used to create this type of pottery have advanced over the years and the workshop does utilize modern technology such as electric kilns, it also continues the tradition of firing some pieces in old-fashioned “Noborigama” kilns (pictured above). As of 2020, the thirteenth generation of potters continues the legacy of the Chin Jukan founders. The intricate, hand-crafted line carvings decorating some of their pieces are particularly stunning.

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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