Identifying Japanese Porcelain Types: Arita, Imari and Hizen

It can be confusing to try to figure out the different types of ware and the different terms used with porcelain from the Arita area of Japan. The long history coupled with changes in terms can also confuse.

The terms Arita and Imari are often used interchangeably. While not technically correct, one can hear the terms used to refer to the same object. The term Hizen is most often reserved for older ware. Hizen ceased to exist around 18681.

The following is an overview of the Japanese names, English equivalents, and descriptions.


White porcelain, 1680-1740, included items for ceremonies—such as funerary war—and for household use.

White porcelain, 1680-1740, included items for ceremonies—such as funerary ware—and plates and bowls for household use.

White porcelain with underglaze pressed design, 1700-1750. The less the iron content in the glaze, the whiter the piece.

White porcelain with underglaze pressed design, 1700-1750. The less the iron content in the glaze, the whiter the piece.

Hakuji2 refers to undecorated white porcelain. It is unclear what was first produced in Hizen, plain white porcelain or blue and white. The general consensus is that they were both made in Hizen at roughly the same time. The potters that started the Hizen kilns were Korean. In Korea, white was the most highly regarded color of domestically produced porcelain. There are many reasons for this. One being it was a color associated with religious ceremonies. Another reason put forward is cobalt wasn’t readily available.

The range of items produced in the Hizen kilns is impressive. Plates, bowls, incense holders, containers for cosmetics, funerary war—including jars to hold the ash from cremations—to more mundane items such as the rollers for sliding doors. Not every kiln produced every item. The kilns that produced high quality items far outnumbered the kilns producing items for everyday use.

There are a lot of differences in the quality of the materials that went into the clear glaze that was used. If the iron content was high in the base materials the glaze would appear bluer. The less iron content, the whiter the glaze would appear. The word for the most sought-after of the whitest ware from Hizen is Nigoshide, which was produced from 1650-1690. By 1690, it wasn’t possible to get pure enough ingredients anymore to continue to make Nogoshide.


Tetsuyu3 is the Japanese name for a number of iron-bearing glazes. With iron content running from 1 to more than 10 percent, the color changes toward black as the iron percentage goes up. The names are, in order from least the smallest iron content to the largest, Kikashoku, Kashoku, Ame, Temmoku4. The highest percentages result in black glaze. Iron glazes start out with a base of ash glaze, to which the iron is added. Fired iron glazes, to meet Japanese expectations, should be as matte as possible. There are many different ways the ware was glazed including ware that was glazed only half way down from the top, half-iron glaze and half-clear glaze or black-only applied in small areas. Black glazes have been around for a very long time. They were very common as an everyday glaze for ware in daily use, often found on regular bowls or grinding bowls.


Ruri on Ruri, 1670-1690

Ruri on Ruri, 1670-1690.

Ruri with pressed underglaze design, 1700-1780

Ruri with pressed underglaze design.

Ruri is the Japanese name for natural cobalt-bearing5 bluish glaze. There are a number of types of application. On ware that has raised decoration, the glaze was painted on, leaving the raised parts a little less covered, giving an effect of blue background and a white foreground. Ruri glaze applied to the outside, while the inside was left white. Underglaze applications of ruri with an over application of the same, for a blue on blue effect. For a short period, ruri with a silver overglaze application was produced. The period was roughly from 1650-1700. Overglaze application of gold had a much longer period of manufacture. Starting about the same time as silver overglaze decoration it really became popular as the 1700s progressed.


Celadon with fluted design with iron highlights.

Celadon with fluted design with iron highlights.

Celadon with iron highlights, 1690-1740

Celadon bowl with iron highlights, 1690-1740.

Seiji6, called celadon in English, is rare out of the Arita kilns prior to 1637 because the kilns in Arita were busy making other types of decorated ceramics. Most celadon were chiefly made in China and Korea. But after 1637 the Japanese started to produce celadon in large quantities.

Of the Japanese celadon that was made, there are several types of decoration, with underglaze carving and underglaze etching of lines being the most common. Celadon was also used as a complement to other types of glazing; that is to say there are pieces that have an application of celadon glaze to highlight decoration.


1 What is now called Arita, was once called Hizen, Imari porcelain is still produced there
2 Haku = white, ji = the abbreviated form for jiki, porcelain.
3 Tetsu = iron, yu = the abbreviated form for yuyaku, glaze
4 Temmoku has an interesting history. The name comes from a mountain in China. It is now used in Japan as the name of a specific glaze. It technically refers to a shape, but the usage today in Japan is commonly understood to mean a certain type of iron-bearing glaze.
5 Ruri glaze contains the Japanese natural cobalt, gosu, mixed in with a base glaze. Gosu is not as strong as cobalt that has been highly refined. Gosu color was used on the earliest Imari blue and white ware. If comparing it side by side with Chinese cobalt, imported as the Chinese did, it is obvious it is almost a different material.
6 Seiji = sei = blue, ji = the abbreviated form for jiki, porcelain.

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

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