The History of Japanese Ceramics (Pottery): Japanese Traditional Crafts

Jomon earthernware

The history of Japanese ceramics is long and has been influenced by ancient Japanese pottery as well as wares from other countries such as Korea and China. It is also convoluted, with many kinds of Japanese ceramics in existence that can be roughly divided into toki (pottery) and jiki (porcelain). This article takes a deep dive into the world of Japanese ceramics by detailing the histories of toki and jiki.

The Craft Is Over 10,000 Years Old, But Modern Japanese Ceramics Are 1,300 Years Old

It is said that Japanese ceramics came into existence around 1,300 years ago, but the reality is a little more muddled.
“Japanese ceramics” is actually a general term for “toki” and “jiki.” “Toki”* is known as pottery in English, and is made using clay. “Jiki” is porcelain, made with crushed pottery stone.


*Toki can be further classified into “doki” (earthenware), “sekki” (stoneware), and “toki” (pottery) depending on the temperature it is baked at.

The Prototype of Toki and the Beginning of Doki

Jomon earthernware

A series of recent studies show that Japan has been making earthenware through the process of baking and hardening clay for over 15,000 years. Its beginnings can be traced back to the Jomon Era (13,000 BC – 300 BC *1) and more specifically, Jomon earthenware (above picture for reference), fired using a simple technique known as “noyaki,” where the earthenware pieces are surrounded by fire out in the open and left to bake. This craft is believed to have spread to the rest of Japan approximately 10,000 years ago, but further research efforts might show that it actually extended across the country earlier than that. Later on, in the Yayoi Period (300 BC – 300 AD *2), the Japanese managed to create Yayoi earthenware by covering the pieces with materials like straw when firing them at a high temperature. The resulting wares were thinner than Jomon earthenware, yet sturdy.


*1, 2: When exactly the Jomon Era took place is still a bit of a mystery, with some recent studies theorizing it took place from 16,000 BC to 900 BC. For this reason, when the Yayoi Period took place is also a bit unclear.

The Beginning of Toki

Saigen Jiro / Wikimedia Commons

In the 5th century, which falls in the middle of the Kofun Period that ran from the 3rd to the 7th centuries, the Japanese acquired new crafting techniques from the Korean Peninsula. Utilizing these new techniques, they were able to make Sue pottery (pictured above; displayed at the History Museum of Izumi Province) using reduction firing, which featured primitive versions of yuyaku, a glaze that made the piece glassy.

Wikimedia commons

In the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794), craftspeople in Japan were influenced by the Enyu (lead-glazed) pottery pieces coming out of China and the Korean Peninsula, and in response came up with the colorful Ryokuyu pottery (pictured above; green-glazed four-footed pot displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Nara Sansai (a kind of sansai (tri-colored) pottery). Fast forward to the 9th century during the Heian Period (794-1185). In what is today known as Aichi Prefecture, craftspeople at the Sanage Kiln started producing Kaiyu pottery pieces made with artificial glaze and fired at a high temperature.
The tough and highly water-resistant Yakishime pottery that eventually led to modern versions of pottery was believed to have been created in the 11th century (late Heian Period) and spread across Japan due to their practicality. Examples of this pottery include Tokoname ware, Atsumi ware, Echizen ware, Shigaraki ware, Tanba ware, and Bizen ware.
As for Sue pottery, it continued to be produced and used until as recently as the Edo Period (1603-1868).

How Toki Became Ingrained in Japanese Tea Ceremony Culture and Aesthetics

Daderot / Wikimedia commons

With the introduction of “chanoyu” (Japanese tea ceremony) culture in the 15th to 16th centuries (late Muromachi Period) came a sudden rise in societal status for domestically-produced toki and other Japanese products. The golden age of Japanese ceramics washed over the nation soon after in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1615), bolstered by the rapid creation of various kinds of toki. Prime examples of this include Raku tea cups by Chojiro—an iconic Kyoto potter in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period who received guidance from Sen no Rikyu, the man who created the wabi sabi (acceptance of transience and imperfection) elements of chanoyu that would later develop into the “chado” or Japanese tea ceremony practiced today; Kizeto, Setoguro, Shino (pictured above; Furisode, a Shino tea bowl displayed at the Tokyo National Museum), and Oribe—all types of Mino ware; and tea bowls in the Echizen, Shigaraki, Iga, Tanba, and Karatsu styles.

How Jiki Came to Be

Wikimedia commons

Jiki came about at the beginning of the 17th century during the Edo Period (1603-1868) after Korean potter Yi Sam-pyeong (otherwise known as Kanagae Sanbee) discovered pottery stone at Mt. Izumi in Arita in modern-day Saga Prefecture. The stone was eventually used to produce Imari-Arita pieces (such as the above photo, believed to have been made in the 18th century), and the rest is history.

Conclusion

In short, even though the existence of Japanese ceramics can be traced back to 10,000-16,000 years ago, if not more, the modern-day versions are relatively new at around 1,300-1,500 years old. That said, future research could unveil the possibility of them existing for far longer than that, so we’ll have to see what results they come up with.

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

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