July 24, 2014 12:00 am JST

Brand Japan almost 400 years old

Hiroko Uno

An imaginary European palace adorned with roughly 100 reproductions of antique Imari porcelain exported from Japan between the mid-17th and 19th centuries is the venue of the 34th Summer Festival of Arita & Imari Porcelain.

     The show runs through July 31 at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo.

     The exhibition, "Antique Imari Porcelain Beloved in Europe," showcases the charms of Japanese ceramics, which were cherished by baroque- and rococo-era royalty and aristocrats. Items on display include pieces from the collection of the Kyushu Ceramic Museum.

     One section, called "Homage to the Japanese Palace of Augustus the Strong," is jointly sponsored by northern Kyushu's Saga Prefecture, which owns and manages the museum and will mark in 2016 the 400th anniversary of the start of the Arita pottery tradition. The section reproduces wall decorations of the unfinished Japanese Palace of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, present-day Germany. Augustus was an avid porcelain collector and the founder of the Meissen factory.

     Porcelain cabinets became all the rage among European nobles during the period. They were seen as symbols of wealth and power. This part of the exhibition re-creates a centuries-old ambience of opulence.

     Legend has it Augustus coveted porcelain so much that in Prussia he once traded the services of 600 elite soldiers for 151 pieces of Asian porcelain. His grand plan was to decorate the walls of every room in the Japanese Palace with his collection of 25,000 pieces of Oriental ceramics and 35,000 pieces of Meissen, but the nobleman died before he could see his dream realized.

Japanese art, Korean master

Arita porcelain takes its name from the town of Arita, Saga Prefecture, where it was first made. The style is said to date back to Korean potter Ri Sampei, who was brought to Japan by Nabeshima Naoshige, lord of the Hizen domain, on his way back from Toyotomi Hideyoshi's failed invasion of the Korean Peninsula. Ri is said to have discovered porcelain stone deposits on Mount Izumi, in eastern Arita, and to have been the first person in Japan to produce porcelain, in 1616.

     Arita porcelain is made using firing techniques from Korea and Jingdezhen designs from China. Early works were mostly white, with patterns drawn in indigo. In the 1640s, master potter Sakaida Kakiemon developed a groundbreaking overglaze color technique. With his delicate and graceful designs based on a quintessentially Japanese aesthetic, Kakiemon's works became the foundation of Arita porcelain. Ceramics produced in Arita are also called Imari, after the port from which they were shipped.

Market for beauty

The Dutch East India Company in the 1650s began exporting Arita porcelain to Europe. Oriental pottery that made its way west was mostly of the Jingdezhen style. But when China's Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Qing, civil unrest caused the new rulers to seal off the country; porcelain exports stopped.

     European merchants soon took notice of Arita ceramics, and Japanese porcelain became a substitute for Chinese products. The milk-white pieces with elegant, multicolored patterns were an instant hit with nobles who described them as mystic white artifacts with a beautiful glow. Kinrande (gold brocade) pieces covered in ornate floral patterns were a particular favorite of European rulers. Three million pieces of Arita porcelain were shipped abroad from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century and had a great influence on the Meissen factory.

     Augustus the Strong was among the European royals and aristocrats who fervently collected Arita porcelain. But he wasn't satisfied with possessing a large collection. European potters didn't know how to produce porcelain as white, hard and glossy as Aritaware. Wanting to become the first European producer of high-quality porcelain, he ordered alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger to discover the secret.

     After years of hardship, trial and error, Bottger finally found the answer in 1709. The giddy Augustus opened a pottery studio inside the Albrechtsburg Castle. Surrounded by a natural fortress, the castle was an ideal place to keep the secret of porcelain-making. The Meissen factory opened the following year and remained in operation for 150 years.

     Augustus wanted colorful porcelain like Aritaware, and he reportedly ordered potters to copy Kakiemon works. Meissen has since become one of the world's most famous porcelain producers. Its trademark Blue Onion pattern has its roots in Chinese and Japanese ceramics.

     Arita was the only place porcelain was made in Japan until production began in other areas during the late Edo period. Arita not only created works of art presented to the Imperial family, Daimyo feudal lords and the Tokugawa shogunate but also helped spread the porcelain culture to ordinary people.

     Exports came to a temporary end in the final Edo years, but Arita ceramics won praise at world expositions in Paris and elsewhere in Europe during the Meiji era. Arita ceramics are believed to have contributed to the Europewide Japonisme boom. At the same time, Arita potters adopted European designs and techniques to expand and deepen their pieces' charms.

     In 2016, Arita will mark 400 years since Ri Sampei succeeded in producing the first porcelainware in Japan. Way back in the 17th century, Arita porcelain was a forerunner in earning Japan a brand image of exquisite craftsmanship. It did so by enchanting Europeans and leaving them with vivid impressions.

Hiroko Uno is a freelance writer.