Nabeshima ware: made to order


Talk about a nightmare of a client. They expect deliveries tailored to their precise instructions — once every year. They send missives along the lines of, “You should be a bit more creative with your designs,” and then append them with casual reminders that they will be happy to vet any innovations. Oh, and then there’s the small issue of paying you for your deliveries: They don’t. They think they’re above that.

But, of course, when the “client” in question is the shogun, and you are the feudal lord of the Saga Domain, in what is now Kyushu, then complaining is not an option. In fact, it’s an honor that your ruler in Edo (present-day Tokyo) is interested in your annual offerings of ceramics at all. Yes, you push your craftsmen to ever-greater heights of creativity and quality. And yes, you meet the Shogun’s every request to the letter.

But, hey, look on the bright side. Your efforts will be rewarded — and not once, but twice. First, the shogun will express his approval; and then, several centuries later, in the summer of 2010, in fact — a selection of your ceramic gifts will be assembled for an exhibition at the Suntory Museum of Art, in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. “Nabeshima Ware: Designs that Inspire Pride,” the exhibition will be called, and if anyone has the right to feel proud about it, it’s you.

For Yukie Yasukouchi, a curator specializing in ceramics at the Suntory Musuem of Art, the decision to hold an exhibition of Nabeshima ware — as the Saga Domain ceramics are known — was an obvious one.

“Because it was made primarily as gifts for the shogun of the day, Nabeshima ware is one of the highest quality of ceramics in Japan,” she said. “It’s also one of the types of ceramics for whom provenance issues are the clearest.”

The term “Nabeshima ware” refers to the plates, bowls and dishes made from porcelain at the kilns operated directly by the Nabeshima clan — the rulers of the Saga Domain — between the 1640s and 1871, when the downfall of the Shogunate government at the end of the Edo Period resulted in the kiln’s closure.

The Nabeshima kiln was started by the first Saga lord, Nabeshima Katsushige. At the time, the western domain’s rulers tended to source ceramic gifts for the shogun from nearby China. Demonstrating the kind of enterprising spirit that in the 20th century would make Japanese companies such as Sony and Nissan famous, Katsushige decided one day that it would be more efficient to produce ceramics similar to those found in China locally.

With the help of some craftsmen brought over from China, sites were found around the areas of Arita and then Imari, where the quality of the clay was so good that it could be used almost without any processing. Native clay workers and specialist glazing artists were soon producing ceramics to match the best of the Middle Kingdom.

We know the Japanese ceramicists matched their Chinese counterparts in talent because samples of works by both still exist today. In one of the highlights of the current exhibition, a plate made in China in the early 1700s is exhibited alongside a Japanese-made copy from the mid 1700s.

Naturally, it’s not a precise copy. The pair of exhibits makes clear how the Japanese artisans made adjustments to the Chinese designs, obviously in response to local tastes. Just like Japanese carmakers later reduced the size of their cars to match Japan’s narrow roads, the Nabeshima ceramicists of the Edo Period apparently decided that Japanese tastes demanded that color variations be toned down. In this case, where the Chinese original has blue-colored illustrations on a contrasting green background, the Japanese copy has both illustrations and background in a similar blue.

Yasukouchi explained that Nabeshima ware is characterized by the detail and precision of its decoration. “You can sense that the craftsmen were constantly pushing themselves to make even more detailed and finer designs in response to requests from the shogun,” she said.

At its most decorative, Nabeshima ware featured patterns in four colors: blue, red, yellow and green. Common motifs were flowers, weaving spools, clouds, cherry blossoms, maple trees and wagtails — all of which can be seen in the current exhibition.

Written records exist of requests made by the Edo Shogunate for new and different designs. It was occasionally even suggested that the ceramicists manning the Saga Domain-owned kilns (whose works were destined for the shogun) should scan the stocks of local private kilns in search of inspiration.

Perhaps one of the designs they found in such searches was the endearingly self-referential “design of jars,” which can be found on some of the Nabeshima pieces in the exhibition.

The designs became a little more subdued in the mid 1700s, when the current shogun very graciously ordained that gifts sent to him should be made a little less extravagant. The Nabeshima ceramicists responded by limiting themselves to a single color — blue — which they nevertheless applied with undiminished virtuosity, adding gradations and fine details in their depictions of motifs such as flowers.

The Saga Domain was required to present the shogun with ceramics every year in November. (Like every other domain, they had to give something every month of the year.) Over the course of the two centuries between the opening of the Nabeshima kilns and the end of the Edo Period, the system of gift-giving became highly regimented.

Yasukouchi explained that each November, a total of 82 ceramics items were presented, including two hachi plates 30 cm in diameter, 20 ozara plates 21 cm in diameter and 20 chiuzara plates 15 cm in diameter.

Ceramics made at the kilns were also given to lower-ranking Shogunate officials, as well as the leaders of other domains.

Yasukouchi managed to track down around 150 examples of Nabeshima ware for the current exhibition, which continues until Oct. 11 (some exhibits will be changed in the course of the show). Thirty of those were in the collection of the 49-year-old Suntory Museum of Art, while the others came from specialist ceramics museums such as the Kyushu Ceramic Museum in Saga Prefecture, and private collectors who Yasukouchi located through networks of researchers and art dealers.

The exhibition also includes contemporary ceramics works by Imaizumi Imaemon XIV, who is a direct descendant of one of the ceramicists employed by the Nabeshima clan.

These days, only the cruelest of connoisseurs would wish for the return of clients as demanding as the shoguns once were. Still, considering the beauty of the ceramics produced within that Edo Period system of annual gift-giving, it’s hard to deny a feeling of gratitude that they existed in the past.

“Nabeshima Ware: Designs that Inspire Pride” runs till Oct. 11; admission ¥1,300. open Wed.-Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (Sun., Mon. and National holidays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.), closed Tue. For more information, visit