Heartfelt friendship between Arita and Europe through ceramic arts

During feudal times (the 17th through the 19th centuries), Japan, surrounded by the sea, practiced selfisolationism by excluding all foreigners from her shores. Only one small window was open. It was Nagasaki, where a small settlement called Dejima was provided for a few Dutch and Chinese who were engaged in licensed trade. It was too minor both in quantity and in quality to influence Japanese life style and culture. It can be said that Japan was an orphan, isolated from international cultural intercourse for 300 years.
Under such circumstances, Arita was a rare exception. This small village was surrounded by mountains and located on Kyushu island, far from Edo, the political capital at that time, later renamed Tokyo. Yet Arita was tied closely to far-off European countries. The tradition of Arita is said to be adopting foreign culture, refining it, and creating a unique beauty.

The history of Arita
The history of Arita, where the world-famous “Ko-Imari” was produced, began with the introduction of the techniques from Korea.
In the end of the 16th century, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the political ruler of Japan at that time, invaded Korea. When his armed forces withdrew from Korea, some of the feudal lords who participated in the campaign under Hideyoshi brought a number of Korean potters back to Japan. Among these potters was Ri Sampei (Korean Name Lee Cham-Pyung). He discovered Kaolin in Arita and produced fine white porcelain for the first time in Japan.
Soon the potters settled down in Arita and became naturalized citizens of Japan. They created fine white porcelain with a unique Japanese beauty, different from the Korean originals.
During its refining process, Arita porcelain was influenced by the products of Keitokuching, the Chinese national kiln at that time, and also by the Indian and Persian patterns which seem to have been introduced to Japan through the Silk Road.

From the beginning of the 17th century, Holland continually ordered a large amount of Arita porcelain through Dejima in Nagasaki. For 250 years the trading ships of the Dutch East India Company carried Arita porcelain with its delicate beauty of the Orient to Europe. The course of their ships can be called the “Ceramic Road on the Sea”.
Princes and noblemen of Europe at that time were eager to obtain Arita porcelain. Arita porcelain was valued above gold and silver by members of the Hapsburg family, the Bourbon family, the Hanover family and other famous families who were fascinated by this beautiful porcelain. August the First, the king of Saxony in Germany, was a fanatical collector. He built a ceramic museum with a Japanese style exterior and interior. You can see some of his magnificent collection at the Dresden Art Museum which has over a thousand articles of “Ko-Imari” porcelain and over 200 examples of “Kakiemon”. August the First also built a ceramic factory in Meissen, which was the origin of porcelain manufacturing which we now find in many places in Europe.
Thus the various patterns of Arita porcelain greatly influenced European arts, from baroque to rococo.
The people of Arita not only exported porcelain to Europe but also carefully studied the artistic style of Europe as introduced through Dejima. In Arita’s porcelain, therefore, we find various nuances of the culture and tradition of both Asia and Europe.
By the end of the 19th century, Japanese feudalism had collapsed and the modern constitutional monarchy had been established. Arita porcelain was exhibited at the international fair in Paris and won high praise. In introducing the wonder of Japanese culture to all over the world, the Arita porcelain exhibition was, so to speak, a symbol of the new Japan.

That was a hundred years ago. Today, Kakiemon, Imaemon and other young Arita potters are proud of their 400-years-old tradition and the techniques they have retained. And still they are striving to produce even more modern articles day by day.
If you visit this small town surrounded by mountains and find a dish with a pattern of birds playing among the flowers, no matter where you come from, it may remind you of something familiar in Europe, for the artistic style and tradition of European porcelain has been preserved here since its arrival in olden times.

Arita porcelain is roughly classified into three groups by style.

The first is called the “Ko-Imari” group.
During feudal times Arita porcelain was loaded on ships at Imari Port which was more than 10 kilometers distant from Arita. “Ko” means old. So this old style is called “Ko-Imari”. It has remarkable characteristics. Most of the pieces of Ko-Imari are decorated with picture patterns on the entire surface. Gold and Silver are used generously. Dragons, chrysanthemums, peonies, pine trees, bamboo and plum blossoms are often seen in brilliant and dazzling patterns. In this group we find the influence of China, the baroque and rococo fine arts of Europe and the fully-matured culture of the Japanese people at that time.

The second group is called “Kakiemon”.
The picture patterns on the milk-white background color are intentionally unbalanced on the right and left. In old times these designs were so popular in Europe that copies were baked at the Meissen Kiln. Even now the Meissen Kiln produces the porcelain in the Kakiemon style.

The third group is called “Nabeshima”.
Tiem was when those products of this group were produced only for presentation to Emperors, Shoguns and feudal lords as well as for daily used by Lord Nabeshima and his family, rulers of this area. Commoners were barred from access to “Nabeshima”. After the collapse of feudalism, however, it became available to anyone. It still retains its noble elegance for which it has been noted for centuries.

Ko-Imari style   Kakiemon style   Nabeshima style
To the future...
As we learned from Mr.Gottfried Wagner 300 years ago, we, people in Arita, want to learn from you now.
Arita porcelain has 400 years history of proud tradition. Its beauty cannot be separated from the natural landscape of this small village surrounded by mountains. The sky, the trees rustling in the wind and a sense of local pride contribute to the charm of Arita porcelain.
But the people in Arita are not satisfied with existing conditions. We are expecting much from the furure. We are standing firm in this town, pursuing something new and even more beautiful, as we have done for 400 years.
We are proud of our porcelain and would like to hear your opinion of it. We sincerely want to learn from you. We leave our good faith for the people of the world in these pieces of porcelain produced in Arita.