Ceramics offer a fascinating window into Japan’s turbulent past and Nabeshima pottery is a captivating example of how history and pottery comes together. The fortunes of this elegant and noble style of ceramics mirror the ups and downs of Japanese history over the past four centuries.
Nabeshima ceramics originated from Arita in Saga Prefecture on Kyushu around the time when porcelain ware was first produced in Japan by Korean potters. The potters were brought to the country after the invasion of Korea by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi around 400 years ago. It is also believed that Chinese ceramics traders from Imari, not too far from Arita, introduced the overglaze enamel technique to this region during this period.
The Nabeshima kiln was established in the middle of the 17th Century as the feudal kiln of the local Nabeshima clan, who brought together the best craftsmen in the region to produce high quality porcelain tableware.
Decorated in blue-on-white underglaze, or multi-colored overglaze enamel (known as Iro-Nabeshima) or celadon, Nabeshima ceramics were only produced as gifts for the ruling shogun family and feudal lords during the Edo period (1603-1867). As a consequence of this tightly held circulation within the privileged elite, Nabeshima pottery was largely unknown to the general population until Shogunate rule ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
My preference for ceramics styles that possess the essence of uncalculated spontaneity rather than precision and perfection meant that I initially found the meticulous beauty of Nabeshima rigid and difficult to appreciate. But my perspective changed during a visit to the Tokyo National Museum when I saw an Iro-Nabeshima plate with Flower and Raft design.
Although the plate was made in the 18th century, the enamel colors of red, green and yellow were so bright and vivid against the beautiful cobalt underglaze. It almost seemed like the air surrounding the plate was a little clearer than the rest of the museum –and I swear I was not inhaling any questionable substances at the time! The plate’s bold design possessed a unique sense of clarity and pride unlike any other ceramics work that I have seen.
So I was excited when the opportunity arose in the spring of 2013 to visit the Imaizumi Imaemon Kiln in Arita, which is carrying on the tradition of the making of Nabeshima ceramics.
The Imaizumi Imaemon family has a long and illustrious history that dates back to the Edo period when it was first commissioned as the Nabeshima’s official overglaze enamel artisan (or Akae-shi). For over 200 years, the family enjoyed the financial support of successive feudal lords. However, when the feudal fief system was replaced with the prefectural administrative system in the Meiji era, the Nabeshima kiln collapsed with the ending of shogunate largesse.
The 10th generation master painter Imaemon, who was the family patriarch during this crisis, decided to do whatever was necessary to preserve the technique for the production of Iro-Nabeshima. From scratch, the family had to painstakingly learn forming and firing techniques, which took many years and only began to bear fruit in the early 20th Century under the 12th generation Imaemon. For this enormous accomplishment, the Imaemon kiln was recognized as an important intangible cultural asset by the Japanese government in 1971.
During my visit to the kiln, which is located in the Akae-machi (overglaze town) district of Arita, I saw a craftsman trimming a porcelain bowl and carefully measuring it to its required exact weight on a scale. The kiln was loaded with numerous saggars that encased the pieces to protect them from ashes of pine wood used for firing.
One noticeable sight was the piles of rejected bisque wares, many of which were discarded for the slightest hints of flaws. It was clear that precision and design perfection is of utmost importance, which is a rare quality in Japanese pottery kilns that tend to focus on extemporaneity and simplicity.
Imaemon’s formulas for glazes and their application techniques are still closely-held secrets that are handed down to only a single son of each generation who takes over the name of “Imaizumi Imaemon”.
The kiln today produces two distinct lines of Iro-Nabeshima, the first of which are created in line with the traditional style of Iro-Nabeshima by over 30 craftsmen. The second line is of a modern Iro-Nabeshima created by the current 14th generation Imaizumi Imaemon.
If the opportunity arises, I would highly recommend a visit to the Imaemon museum or shop in Arita. They also have a satellite shop in Tokyo. Imaemon’s work is unequivocally stunning, with striking designs, pristine lines, and clever use of the white spaces of natural porcelain. Even if the pricing may seem out of reach for many, including myself, it is still a sheer delight to be able to see this fine work and to pick out a favorite piece you would have liked to take home.
* “Nabeshima” by Motosuke Imaizumi (Tokyo; Kodansha International, 1981) was used as a reference for this blog post.