Imari-Arita Ware Guide: Japanese Ceramics (Porcelain)

Imari-Arita ware

Japanese porcelain was born in Saga Prefecture in northern Kyushu. Crafted since the beginning of the 17th century, this 400-year-old art is widely celebrated as the epitome of Japanese porcelain. Despite being made in the Arita region, it was shipped out via Imari Port and was thus known as “Imari” porcelain. Loved for its vibrant, colorful designs, many modern Imari-Arita ware artisans continue to adorn their pieces with the dazzling patterns of their ancestors. Antique pieces, referred to as “Ko-Imari,” are scarce and valuable, attracting avid collectors across the globe. Imari-Arita ware is registered as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

The History of Imari-Arita Ware

Izumiyama Quarry

The first porcelain to be made in Imari City and Arita Village was crafted in the beginning of the 17th century. These towns are located in west Saga, a prefecture in Kyushu’s southwest. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the shogun (military dictator) who first unified Japan, dispatched Japanese troops to the Korean peninsula towards the end of the 16th century, who then brought back Korean craftsmen. These craftsmen found a high-quality ceramic material called “Ryumongan” at Izumiyama (pictured above) in Arita, and proceeded to create Imari-Arita ware from this natural resource.

Jingdezhen porcelain

During the 17th century, at the beginning of the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), Jingdezhen porcelain (pictured above), which was actively imported from China, was commonplace. However, due to a civil war that occurred in imperial China in 1644, the amount of exports sharply decreased. Attention was turned to the domestic Imari-Arita ware, and production increased exponentially. As a result, the type of porcelain that was used in Japan subsequently was mostly Imari-Akita ware.

Later, the Edo shogunate (the government body at the time) implemented the “sakoku” closed country policy. However, special trading exceptions were made for China and the Netherlands, and Imari-Arita ware began to be exported by ship. Doing this along with implementing Chinese porcelain-making techniques continued to increase the quality of Japanese porcelain.

One technique that improved considerably was the “iroe,” or overglaze enamel paintings. The famous “Kakiemon” type of painting that decorates Arita ware came about in the 1660s. During that time, European countries did not have a technique to create white porcelain, and highly favored porcelain with Kakiemon. In the 18th century, many areas across Europe started making porcelain that imitated the Kakiemon design, such as Meissen porcelain.

Imari-Arita ware

Imari ware and Arita ware continued to be exported to Europe for around 100 years until 1757, but after that, it began to change to better fit Japanese people’s tastes. Towards the end of the Edo Period, from the 18th to 19th centuries, food stalls and restaurants became quite active, and as the food culture among civilians flourished, Imari and Arita ware became indispensable in the Edo lifestyle.

The reason the name “Imari ware” is popular outside of Japan is because porcelain that was made in Arita was shipped out through Imari Port, so they were not distinguished as a separate type of porcelain and instead collectively called Imari ware.

The Characteristics of Imari-Arita Ware

The surface of Imari-Arita ware is such a clear white that Europeans aristocrats even nicknamed it “white gold.” After “gosu” (indigo pigment) is drawn onto the surface, vibrant overglaze enamels are drawn on in beautiful reds, greens, yellows, purples, and blues.

Imari-Arita ware is also light, hard, and durable. This is due to it being shaped from special clay made from pottery stone, glazed with yuyaku, and then fired at the extremely high temperature of 1,300°C for over seventeen hours.

Types of Imari-Arita Ware

Nabeshima ware

Imari-Arita ware can be categorized into three main groups.

The first is “Ko-Imari-Yoshiki,” or “Old-Type Imari.” This type was made during the Edo Period. Dazzling decorations made of red and gold were laid atop the blue and white porcelain, creating vibrant pieces of art.

The second is the “Kakiemon” type. It uses a milky white for its base, and the designs drawn atop are in the Kakiemon style. Sakaida Kakiemon, the inventor of this technique, used red, yellow, green, and blue colors to delicately portray motifs such as Japanese flowers and birds. The highly beloved Kakiemon type of Japanese porcelain is a great representation of traditional Japanese aesthetics.

The third is the “Nabeshima” type. This porcelain was not meant for the common people to use, but was instead sold directly to the Nabeshima clan and was made as offering to many different daimyo (Japanese feudal lords). The porcelain is characterized by its bluish-white background with orderly and precisely drawn patterns. There are many dignified, luxuriously made Nabeshima pieces that are deservingly called pieces of art.

Imari-Arita Ware Today

Imari-Arita ware

2016 marked the 400-year anniversary since the inception of Imari ware and Arita ware. Pieces from the Edo Period are still being restored today, and modern artisans and creators are collaborating to create and test new designs. There are even businesses working on developing the world’s strongest porcelain for Imari-Akita ware!

Nowadays, Imari-Arita ware is not just beloved in Japan, but overseas as well, especially in Europe. The paintings decorating the clear white porcelain have varying beauties depending on the era and the artist, and in recent years, refined designs made with techniques such as openwork have garnered attention as well.

Imari-Arita ware decorates museums and palaces all over the world, and is even prized so highly in Japan that it is given as gifts by the Imperial household. The techniques that have been passed down may be old, but the designs have changed in recent times to fit modern aesthetics and lifestyles.

This innovation has increased even more so in recent years, with many in-house porcelain artisans working to create pieces that people can use in their daily lives today.

Arita Autumn Porcelain Festival

Every spring and autumn, 1.2 million people gather at the “Aritatoukiichi (*1)” (Arita Ware Market), where many pieces are displayed. Those who are unable to attend the event are able to make purchases through the event’s website, where customers are able to shop online (*2) and find many new pieces.

*1) Spring 2020 cancelled due to COVID-19
*2) Online shopping only available for a certain amount of time (April 29 – May 5, 2020; autumn TBD)

Featured Products

Soft Cherry Blossom Platter

Source: BECOS

Living up to the dazzling reputation of Imari-Arita ware, this exquisitely-designed large plate is perfect for both cooking and interior decoration. The plate features an intricate blue and green helix forming a captivating contrast against the white porcelain.

Size: φ15.74″ x H2.75″ (Φ40.0 cm x H7.0 cm)
Material: Ceramic
Brand: Soujiro Kiln (Imari-Arita ware)

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*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the retailer’s website for more information.

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

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