This year is ostensibly the 400th anniversary of Arita-yaki (Arita ware). An Arita city webpage tells us it was in 1616 that a forcibly relocated Korean farmer, Yi Sam-pyeong, discovered the white clay kaolin and then fired Japan’s first porcelain. Other scholars have dated the first firing to 1610, while a humble consensus cites Japan-based successes in the mainland tradition to the decade beginning that year. The 400th year celebration has, in fact, been ongoing in exhibitions since the late 1990s.

One of the latest exhibitions, “The Compelling Beauty of Arita Ceramics in the Age of the Great International Expositions,” currently showing at The Museum of Ceramic Art, Hyogo, focuses on late 19th-century developments in porcelain and the ascendency of Japan’s domestic production to become a prestigious international export.

Arita in Hizen (partly in modern-day Saga and Nagasaki prefectures), Kyushu, developed Korean porcelain manufacturing based on Chinese influences that date from the techniques and designs of the 11th-century kilns of Jingdezhen, China. Japan’s initial production was small-scale, for domestic consumption, and produced by trial and error, but it became increasingly mechanized, exported and produced in qualities and quantities still being discovered. The second section of the exhibition concerns works that have returned to Japan and are compared with design-phase preparatory sketches.

The first section is titled “Cool Meiji Japan,” which is perhaps unfortunate given that the government’s current Cool Japan initiative to promote Japanese culture abroad is floundering. In the late 19th century, however, the 18th-century vogue for Chinoserie (European translations of Asian decorative arts) that established new roles for East Asian furnishings in European interiors, was followed by a wave of Japonism, and ceramics became an important and increasingly celebrated trade good for the newly industrializing Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japan.

The product placement venues for such goods were the fin de siecle international exhibitions, such as the second London Exposition in 1862, which had a Japan booth featuring the lacquer and pottery collection of the British Consul-General to Japan, Sir Rutherford Alcock. In the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867, two Japanese clans — the Saga and Satsuma — held independent exhibitions, while in 1873, the Japanese government got involved in the Vienna International Exposition, though one visitor, Kume Kunitake (a fledgling bureaucrat who later became a historian), thought the porcelains lacked quality. A Japan side-movement of ceramic enthusiasts then sought to restore Japan’s honor, which was to be done through economies of scale.

In addition to initially showcasing mostly traditional ceramics, Japan sought improved Western production methods to consider what competitive advantages they could offer. Foreign tastes were also being discerned, see for example, Koransha’s “Coffee set with phoenix-shaped tray” (1875-1880s). Novel technologies were vetted, new glazes and paints tried, and improved designs and manufacturing techniques utilized. The shift was from Edo Period (1603-1868) craftsmanship by an individual or small-group, to Meiji Era mechanization and mass-production, such as electric potter wheels and copper-plate design transfer techniques. As a result, porcelain became a major Japanese export item comparable to copper and silk yarn.

The international expositions also provided a model for Japan’s own industrial exhibitions, with the first taking place in Tokyo in 1877. These brought the world to Japan, but also spurred local production through the dissemination of international ideas and technologies. As in any competitive field, there was rivalry, and the desire to out-succeed competitors led to constant demands for technical progress, quality improvements and production maximization. Porcelain became an industrial product and was officially recognized as such.

The Museum of Ceramic Art, Hyogo’s exhibition calls attention to the major private companies fulfilling international demand at that time: Koransha (still operating today), Seiji Kaisha and Fukagawa Seiji. Koransha was a manufacturing conglomerate born of merchant individuals who included Eizaemon Fukagawa and Suminosuke Fukami. They both sought to elevate and intensify porcelain production and disseminate the goods worldwide. This was initially achieved when the company won a prize for a flower vase in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, and then a gold prize for another piece at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle.

Competing voices within the consortium who were concerned with, among other things, streamlining to compete with the West’s mechanization, led to the formation of the breakaway Seiji Kaisha, headed by Fukami, which went on to win a gold prize in the 1883 Holland Colonial Exposition. The company dissolved in 1889, however, owing to a bad economy, failure to utilize to full extent new modern technologies, and deaths in the upper management. Fukagawa Seiji was established by the second son of the president of Koransha, Eizaemon Fukugawa, to manufacture Western-style tableware for export.

And then tastes changed. Though the Japonism wave receded, Art Nouveau was all the rage by 1900 and Japan was still producing bird, flower, wind and moon (kachō-fugetsu) decorative pieces that were derided in Japan as “warped traditional ware.” Arita porcelain manufacturers such as Koransha, whose corporate logo was an orchid, followed such fashions, but it was also a time when a move from corporate brand in favor of the return to individual artistic agency was being rescued.

Ceramic luminaries, such as Miyagawa Kozan, learned from and participated in the Art Nouveau mania, their individuality later segueing into the Taisho Era (1912-1926) concept of the master craftsman. Formal public recognition of the ceramic “artist” finally came in 1927 with a craft section opened within the Imperial Exhibition (Teiten).

Arita’s prefectural home of Saga sees these past 400 years as episode one of Arita ware. Episode two —the next century — looks at ways to innovate, rejuvenate and rebrand through a number of projects. In the future, we can expect more contemporary interpretations, such as the recent collaboration with renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa to create new tableware to stage his Japanese-Peruvian fusion dishes.

For more information, visit www.mcart.jp.

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