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Kutani Ceramics: Warmth with Technical Complexity

by David Pike (02/25/10).

A pair of sake cups with rare Tomobako by Shimizu Bizan.

A pair of sake cups with rare Tomobako by Shimizu Bizan.

Kutani ceramics didn’t appeal to me at first. They seemed a little gaudy, ornate, the opposite of the type of work I like. Until I saw a number of pieces from the Edo and Meiji period , I didn’t really understand the technical complexities of making work in that era. Knowing how many obstacles the potters had to overcome really brought Kutani to life for me. The older pieces have a warmth to them that is unmistakable.

History

It is generally accepted that Kutani ware started not in Kutani village, located in present day Ishikawa prefecture and previously known as Kaga province, but in an area much more familiar to those with an interest in Japanese ceramics, Arita , which is in present day Saga Prefecture. In 1640-1650 the ware known now as “Arita/Imari ware Ko-Kutani style” had its beginnings in the Arita area. It was long believed that Ko-Kutani started in Kutani village, but in 1956 a British man, Soame Jenyns, wrote a catalog essay for an exhibition stating that he thought the actual origin of the works in the show labeled Ko-Kutani to be from Arita. Articles by Yamashita Sakuo and subsequent excavations have proven him correct, although there are still a lot of collectors that refuse to believe the evidence.

Some facts about Kutani are not in dispute. Around about 1655 the rulers of the Kaga area wanted to produce over-glaze enamel work. They established a kiln center to this end. The first kilns in the Kaga area were abandoned roughly 60 years after their start, although it isn’t known exactly why. The potters of the day had many technical problems to deal with and couldn’t manage to overcome them all. They had the added pressure of trying to compete with the potters of the Arita area who, having solved the complexities of over-glaze enamel, were going full-steam ahead filling orders placed by the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, for export to Europe.

A very fine example of Aotsubu (Aubergrine) dots.

A very fine example of Aotsubu (Aubergrine) dots.

It seems strange that a powerful military clan couldn’t marshal the technicians to overcome the difficulties of applying enamels to an already fired piece of porcelain, a process that had been perfected in China and in the Hizen area, now Arita, but that seems to have been the Achilles heel of the founders of the Kutani kilns. Contributing to the difficulties was the isolation of the site chosen for the kilns. It is today still a very out-of-the-way area. In the mid- to late-17th century, it must have been on a road even less traveled.

Because of problems in attaining porcelain ingredients of sufficiently, high-quality material had to be brought in by road from other places, shaped into what ever form was desired, transported to the kiln, fired, unloaded and transported back to the town for decoration, transported back to the kiln for another firing, unloaded from the kiln again for the over-glaze decoration and then fired again in the final firing. Transport was by ox or horse cart. The original kiln was a gargantuan, with 12 chambers and more than 37 meters long and 2.6 meters in width. It isn’t economical or good practice to fire a half full kiln, so the amount of work to fire would have been massive. It is also unclear why the leaders of the Kaga clan chose such an isolated area. Maybe they were trying to keep the secrets of the trade to themselves or trying to hide the industry from the government in Tokyo.

Markings

There are literally hundreds of types of seals on the bottom. The following is an overview. The signatures can be useful to help date work. The markings don’t have definite start and stop dates but they are helpful for determining historical periods.

Fuku Mark, an early variation.

Fuku mark, an early variation.

An early variation (Meiji) Fuku mark. There are several variations of Fuku.

An early variation (Meiji) Fuku mark. There are several variations of Fuku.

The easiest pieces to find have the word “Kutani” in English. These are the most common, and if you don’t read Japanese the easiest to recognize. These are mostly from the 1930s and on. They come with a wide variation on what is written together with the word Kutani. Marking in English started around the middle of the Meiji period, although you will be hard-pressed to find any work from that early period. The marking in English really seems to date from the 1930s and continued into the post-war era. Immediately after World War Two, and continuing long after the occupation of Japan ended in 1951, Americans returning home brought suitcases full of different souvenirs. Ceramics from the Kutani kilns were among those items brought back.

A Hayashi mark.

A Hayashi mark.

a Japan Kutani mark.

a Japan Kutani mark.

A sample Kutani mark.

A simple Kutani mark on a Taisho bowl.

The word Nippon seen with Kutani would indicate the piece is from the 1920s. In the 1920s, because of U.S. trade policies, you will start seeing “Japan Kutani.” This would indicate work done from 1920s on.

The other types of marks are going to be written in Japanese.


There are a lot of different types of “Dai Nippon” type marks, 大日本. The Dai Nippon marks also have a specific age range that helps date them, roughly 1868- 1911.

Kutani in Shoza style – Meiji; probably Shoza, marked Dai Nippon Kutani Sei.

Kutani in Shoza style – Meiji; probably Shoza, marked Dai Nippon Kutani Sei.

The Dai Nippon Kutani Sei mark.

The Dai Nippon Kutani Sei mark.

Another type is the “Kaga” type marks、加賀. These marks will have the words Kaga along with other words. I have never heard of them being signed in English, only Japanese. They date from the beginning of the Meiji period through to the end of the Meiji era with a few appearances into the Taisho era.

Another type of mark is one that just says “Kutani” in Japanese, 九谷. If these kanji appear on a piece, really no matter what else is written the piece is from the Kutani area unless it is a fake.

A rare Aka-E plate by Asai Ichimo, marked Kutani Ichimo.

A rare Aka-E plate by Asai Ichimo, marked Kutani Ichimo.

A Kutani Ichimo mark.

A Kutani Ichimo mark.

Yet another type of mark is the character 福. The character reads “fuku,” a word that means good fortune or good luck. There are many variations on this mark.

There are still many other types of marks I won’t go into.

Internet shopping

If you are looking for quality Kutani pieces, there are some things to be aware of. Often times there is a direct translation of words from Japanese into English that to someone that doesn’t speak Japanese, can seem like a type of Kutani that must be valuable. Taken from listings, I have seen on different sites. “Kutani fu” means “in the style of Kutani” or perhaps “like Kutani . . .”

Prices

Good-quality Kutani is not cheap. If you want to go into pieces that are from before the Meiji period, you will face stiff competition from serious collectors. A look at one site shows the cheapest small cup is 15,000 yen and rising to more than 50,000 yen for a plate for Meiji period work.

I would like to thank John Wocher for his generosity in providing pictures from his large collection of Kutani.

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1 Edo, 1603-1868, Meiji, 1868-1912
2 Present day Ishikawa prefecture was known as Kaga in the time period covered in this part.
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arita,_Saga
4 The two characters that make up the word Kutani consist of the character for “nine” 九, ku and “valley”谷 tani. Think of an area that is named for its characteristic of being made up of steep valleys and you get a feel for how difficult it would have been to get there.

David Pike is a Worthologist who specializes in items from Japan.

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5 Responses to “Kutani Ceramics: Warmth with Technical Complexity”

  1. Linda Lipscomb says:

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you so much!

  2. Dave says:

    Thank you Linda.

  3. Great article. Thank YOU….took me back when I worked For Original
    GUMP’s under Richard Gump and Martin Rosenblatt…and handled
    fine pieces of Kutani and so much more….. selling to museums and
    collectors world wide.
    The article is so didactic and a great mental trip for me.

  4. Donna Duke says:

    Unfortunately (joke!) a long-time friend lived in Japan for six years as a buyer for AAFES. She shared with me her love for Japanese ceramics and I have never been the same since. It is a forever-teaching passion and this article has helped my small and growing knowledge base. This article was a pleasure to read.

  5. Jill says:

    Where can I find out more about recent work labeled Kutani? I have a vase with a gold Kutani paper label and with the kanji on the bottom in gold on a blue-ish rectangle. This vase had an AAFES tag on the bottom, so I assume that it can’t be very old. Any tips for finding out more about it? Thanks.

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