Wordcatcher Tales: Imari, Potters, and Abduction

Recently the Far Outliers finally got around to visiting one of Ashikaga City’s principal tourist attractions, the Kurita Museum near the Flower Park, both of which lie in the outlying town of Tomita, one JR train stop to the east.

The beautiful Kurita Museum grounds house not only one of the finest and largest collections of Imari and Nabeshima porcelain (磁器 jiki) in the world, they also include exhibits of international archaeological finds and pottery-making techniques, a climbing kiln (登り窯 noborigama, as opposed to the single-chamber 穴釜 anagama), gift and snack shops, and an off-limits working potters’ village. The Sushi and Maple Syrup blogger has posted a lot of photos from a weekend visit to the Museum (and Ashikaga Gakko) last year.

伊萬里 (or 伊万里) Imari – My sources seem to indicate that Imari is one subset of Arita ware and Nabeshima is another. They were all manufactured in Arita (有田), in Saga Prefecture in northwest Kyushu. Imari is the port (near Hirado in neighboring Nagasaki Prefecture) from which export varieties were shipped, and Nabeshima (鍋島 ‘Pot Island’) is the name of the Saga domain lords who controlled production, guarded secrets, and commissioned works of the highest quality for their peers in Japan.

As porcelain grew in popularity, the Nabeshima Clan took steps to keep their production and decorating techniques a closely guarded secret. They were aided in this effort by the Tokugawa Shogunate and other feudal lords, who commissioned the Nabeshima Clan to make porcelain for only the elite classes — the sale of Nabeshima ware to commoners was actually forbidden, and the number of kilns and wheels was strictily limited by law.

無名陶工 Mumei toukou ‘Unnamed potters’ – The highest point on the grounds of the Kurita Museum is a memorial hall dedicated to all the unknown potters whose work Mr. Kurita so obviously cherishes. Unfortunately, Mr. Kurita’s flowery words of appreciation fail to note that the first of these potters were Korean, and that at least one went by the name Ri Sampei in Japanese (李参平, 1579-1655).

In the early 1600s, Nabeshima Naoshige, the feudal lord of the Sage [sic] Clan, brought a group of Korean potters to Japan, including the potter Risampei, who in 1616 discovered a superior white-stoned clay at Izumiyama (Izumi Mountain, Arita). Wares fired with this earth are called “hakuji” (white porcelain …). Some say this was the beginning of Arita Ware.

拉致 ratchi or rachi ‘abduction’ – This word is much in the Japanese news these days as the government and individual citizens seek to determine the fate of various young people thought to have been abducted by North Korea in order to teach Japanese to North Korean spies. After failing to find the word (under either pronunciation variant) in my electronic dictionary, I had to resort to looking up the individual characters. The first kanji (拉, Sino-Japanese ratsu) is used to indicate the sound Ra as an abbreviation for Raten ‘Latin’ (which is usually written in katakana when spelled in full). But 拉 also appears in the native Japanese verb 拉ぐ hishigu ‘crush, smash, overpower’ and in the Sino-Japanese verb 拉っする rassuru ‘drag along; kidnap’. The second kanji, whose Sino-Japanese reading is chi, is used to write 致す itasu ‘do; send; cause; render (assistance); exert (oneself)’, as in どう致しまして dou itashimashite ‘what have I done (to deserve thanks)?’ (= ‘Not at all / Don’t mention it’).

The Japanese arts website bleu et blanc provides a succinct account of the role of international supply and demand in the early history of Imari ware. (“Blue-and-white” is the English epithet for 染付け sometsuke porcelain. Literally, it means ‘dye added’ but the default coloring agent for porcelain was cobalt, just as the default dye for textiles was indigo, which I recently heard is also effective as an insect repellent.)

Porcelain was first fired in Hizen province of Northern Kyushu in the early 17th century by Korean potters, and most likely by the potter named Ri Sanpei, who was brought to Japan by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in his second invasion of Korea in 1597.

Early examples were somewhat primitive (but now highly prized) white or celadon toned wares, decorated with underglaze cobalt blue, until the 1640s when the first enamels were fired in red, green, blue, yellow, purple, and eventually gold; associated with the first enamels is the famous Sakaida Kakiemon (1596-1666). Before long Dutch traders aggressively sought to obtain Japanese porcelains, whose sources in China had been disrupted due to political turmoil [the fall of the Ming and rise of the Qing dynasties]; they quickly turned to Arita to provide for European demands. The first large order at Arita was placed by the VOC in 1653, and in a short time the area enjoyed prosperity as providers for the European elite, with export production reaching a peak in the 1680s, the beginning of Arita’s “golden age.”

While market demand continued for some time into the 18th century, Arita could not compete with China, who from a near cessation of operations in the 17th century, rebounded in the 18th century. The last official order from the VOC in 1759 was for three hundred pieces, and the VOC itself was dissolved in 1799.

Simultaneously, and more substantially, Arita provided for its own domestic market throughout its long history. Both style and form evolved parallel with artistic and cultural trends, and show the strong influence at different times of Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu), Chinese ceramics, painting trends, and Chinese style tea ceremony (Sencha). Some of these domestic pieces were exported privately and incidentally to the West, however much of upper tier pieces were reserved for use by feudal lords and like members of society. Arita porcelains are remarkable for their rich variations in form, style and subjects.

POSTSCRIPT: To those who think I am suggesting a moral equivalence between contemporary North Korea and contemporary Japan, let me suggest a much better match, one between Kim Il Sung, would-be unifier of a fractured Korea, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, successful unifier of a fractured Japan. That should irritate both Korean and Japanese nationalists.

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