Guide to Imari porcelain as one of Japanese ceramics

Guide to Imari porcelain as one of Japanese ceramics

Imari porcelain is popular as antiques, daily-use tableware and miscellaneous daily-use dishes. There are various types and styles of Imari porcelain, and it has a very profound appeal. In this article, we will introduce you to Imari porcelain, which has undergone its own unique transition due to the historical background and trade with various countries.

What is Imari porcelain? Differences from Arita-yaki are also explained.

Imari porcelain refers to porcelain produced in Imari City, Saga Prefecture, Japan.Arita-yaki" is another famous porcelain, and Imari and Arita are located near each other, but what is the difference?The difference is "where it is made". Porcelain made in Imari City is called Imari porcelain, and porcelain made in Arita Town is called Arita-yaki (in modern times, they are often referred to collectively as Imari and Arita-yaki).

On the other hand, during the period when porcelain production began, pottery made in Arita was also collectively called "Imari" because it was transported from the port of Imari. As a result, the name "Imari" spread.Imari porcelain has beautiful patterns and designs, and is used in a wide range of products, from practical items such as plates, bowls, and vases, to objects of high artistic value such as antiques and objects of appreciation. Production began in the Edo period (1603-1867), and developed as the oil kiln of the Nabeshima clan that ruled Imari and Arita at that time.

Incidentally, did you know that porcelain fired with high technology is exported not only to Japan but also to other countries, influencing Meissen porcelain in Germany? Imari porcelain, which has influenced not only Japan but also globally and boasts a high reputation, is a vessel that adds color to daily life, and at the same time it can be said to have historical value.

History of Imari porcelain

The history of Imari porcelain dates back to about 400 years ago. The opening of kilns in Arita (Arita Town, Saga Prefecture) after Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea opened the curtain on porcelain production in Japan. Originally, ceramics were fired in Arita from clay, not porcelain, but potters invited by the Korean invaders discovered ceramic stones that could be used to make porcelain in Arita. As a result, kilns were opened in Arita and the production of porcelain began.

Izumiyama Quarry
Izumiyama Quarry

In mid-17th century Japan, while the Edo Shogunate adopted a policy of national isolation, exports of Imari porcelain porcelain to Europe began from Nagasaki, which was the only window to foreign countries. Until then, Chinese porcelain had been distributed, but the production of porcelain was interrupted due to the chaos of the transitional period when the political system changed from Ming to Qing.

The Dutch East India Company, which was looking for a substitute, began to transport Imari porcelain to Europe, and Imari porcelain began to spread throughout the world.In particular, German royalty began to collect Imari porcelain and to introduce its production to their own country.As a result, large pots and bottles for interior decoration were actively exported to Europe, influencing Meissen and the oriental tastes of European royalty and aristocracy. This exportation to Europe continued for nearly 100 years and had a lasting impact.

After the official exports ended in 1757, production was shifted to the Japanese domestic market. Production was targeted at the wealthy and middle class, such as feudal lords, court nobles, and wealthy merchants, and gradually practical pottery was produced for the general public. Today, Imari porcelain is produced as Imari porcelain, but the terminology changed around the Edo period. Pottery produced in the Edo period is called "KoImari" and pottery produced after that period is called "Imari porcelain.

About Ko-Imari

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Ko-Imari ware is Imari ware made in the Edo period and is characterized by its high contemporary antique value. Ko-Imari was exported to Europe for its historical timing and high artistic quality, and was loved by the royalty and aristocracy of the time, but by the 1700s, Ko-Imari's exports were declining and its momentum began to wane. This was due to the decline of the Dutch East India Company, the resumption of production and export of Chinese porcelain, and the fact that Europe, which had been actively importing porcelain, began to produce its own porcelain, modeled after Ko-Imari and Chinese porcelain.

The official export of Imari porcelain through the Dutch East India Company ended in 1757 with 300 pieces. (Private trade continued.) While Ko-Imari has ardent collectors even today, it is also a fact that counterfeits have appeared on the market. It is recommended to collect it with care so that you do not accidentally purchase a fake.

Points to distinguish genuine Ko-Imari from fakes

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Because Ko-Imari has a high antique value, fakes may appear in the market, and if you do not have knowledge, you may end up with a fake. Therefore, we would like to share with you three points to distinguish genuine from counterfeits.

The first is "surface luster.

The time when Ko-Imari was produced was about 300~400 years ago. Because a long time has passed, there is no luster left, as expected. Fake Ko-Imari ware has luster, and the vessel which reflects well when irradiated with light is highly likely to be a fake. In the case of the genuine one, the reflection of light is weak and should be taken as one guideline.

The second is "surface distortion.

Because the firing technique of Ko-Imari which was made in the Edo period had not been established yet, the real Ko-Imari is distorted. This distortion is one of the characteristics of Ko-Imari and makes us imagine the historical time of those days. However, some fakes do not have this distortion, so it is good to distinguish them.

The third is "surface scratches.

Vessels that have been used over a long period of time will have fine scratches on them. Since a vessel with no scratches is unlikely to be authentic, we recommend that you check for scratches. Large scratches or scratches that are easily recognizable may be fake, as they may have been added for camouflage.

Although we have introduced some points to distinguish genuine from fake, it is also true that there are fakes with a high degree of perfection. If you want to clearly distinguish between a genuine and a fake, we recommend that you consult a specialist.

Characteristics of Imari/Arita Ware

Imari/Arita porcelain is characterized by its light, hard, durable, and beautiful white color, which was once praised as "white gold" by European aristocrats. The smooth ground surface is suitable for painting patterns, so indigo-dyed and colorful paintings can be seen in many cases, giving the pottery a prestigious and elegant appearance. In addition, Imari and Arita ceramics are classified into three styles. The three styles are "Ko-Imari style," "Nabeshima style," and "Kakiemon style.

Ko-Imari Style

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The Ko-Imari style is characterized by luxurious, gorgeous, and extremely delicate Sometsuke and Kinrande (gold brocade). The base is dark indigo, and red and gold overglaze paints are lavishly used, and gorgeous patterns are painted with gold paint and gold powder. This style, in which plants and floral patterns are painted all over the surface of the vessel, is thought to reflect the economically affluent climate of the time. This luxurious and gorgeous Ko-Imari style has spread all over the world in the form of large covered pots.

Nabeshima style

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These pieces were not for the common people, but were made under the strict control of the Nabeshima clan at their official kilns as offerings to the feudal lords. They are characterized by a bluish-white ground surface with a regular pattern on the back and a precise pattern on the base, evenly spaced like the teeth of a comb. Many Nabeshima-style ceramics, which were made with an emphasis on dignity and without regard to profitability, can now be considered works of art. The Nabeshima style is characterized by beautiful patterns of red, green, and indigo dyeing.

Kakiemon style

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Kakiemon style" is characterized by pictorial painting that takes advantage of the warm milky-white ground surface. Originally invented by Kakiemon Sakaida, who was active in the Arita area, the style uses mainly red, yellow, green, and blue colors and delicate lines to depict asymmetrical scenes such as flowers and birds, which are unique to Japan. Incidentally, it is said that Kakiemon was the first Japanese potter to apply red paint. This elegant and beautiful pottery was fired for export and was highly acclaimed.

Among the three styles mentioned above, Kakiemon style and Ko-Imari style porcelain were even called "white gold" and were extremely popular among European royalty and nobility. These styles had a great influence on German pottery culture!

Six main types of Imari porcelain

Imari porcelain is made in three styles, but can be classified into six types according to glaze and painting methods.

White porcelain

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White porcelain is made by applying a transparent glaze to the base clay to take advantage of its whiteness. White clay is used as the base, and a transparent glaze refined from iron-free plant ashes and Koryo stone is applied and fired over a high-temperature flame. The translucent whiteness of white porcelain is ideal for painting, and is the reason why Imari porcelain is highly regarded for its exquisite patterns and paintings.


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This is white porcelain painted with only gozu (indigo blue) pigments. It is said that gozu was brought from China in the early Edo period (1603-1868), and since it is colored while unglazed, it never fades. It can be said that the simple use of white and indigo colors is characteristic of this type of pottery.


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Iroe is the overglaze painting using red or gold pigments on white porcelain or some-tone porcelain, which is the basis of Imari porcelain. The difference between this type of pottery and Sometsuke is that Sometsuke is painted on the bare surface (underglaze painting), while Iroe is painted after firing (overglaze painting). Vessels with gorgeous patterns to delicate flowers and plants are extremely beautiful.


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This type of ware is fired with a blue-green glaze. The beautiful blue-green color is achieved by applying a glaze mixed with a slight amount of iron oxide. The beauty of this jade-green color can be enjoyed not only for daily use, but also by carefully appreciating it.

lapis lazuli glaze

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This Imari ware is glazed with a transparent glaze mixed with gozu pigments. Sometsuke also uses gozu, but the difference is that in Sometsuke, the painting is done directly on the bare surface, while in lapis lazuli glaze, the glaze itself is mixed with gozu, giving the glaze an indigo tint.

Iron glaze

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A glaze with a high iron content is applied and fired. The coloring varies depending on the amount of iron contained in the glaze. There are different types of iron glazes, such as rust glaze, yellow glaze, and iron plaster, which produce different textures. Incidentally, glazes mixed with iron are completely vitrified, so the iron does not leach out into the drink.

Here are some famous Imari and Arita-yaki artists

Here are some representative artists and potters who continue to produce wonderful Imari porcelain and Arita-yaki porcelains even today.

Kakiemon Sakaida

Kakiemon Sakaida is an indispensable artist when discussing Arita-yaki. Sakaida Kakiemon is a kiln that has been passed down through 15 generations since the early Edo period in the town of Arita. The works of Kakiemon Sakaida are characterized by the "Kakiemon style," in which flowers and birds are vividly painted in colors such as red, green, yellow, and blue on a unique milky-white base called nigoshide. Among the most popular are works by the 13th Kakiemon Sakaida, such as "Bajo Hai (cup with a peony design in muddy hand)," "Gugui Teacup with a peony design in muddy hand," "Framed dish with a pine, bamboo, plum, and bird design in muddy hand," and "Vase with a bead-shaped bead design in muddy hand.

Manji Inoue

Manji Inoue is a living national treasure and one of the leading Arita-yaki artists who has received the Medal with Purple Ribbon. His work is characterized by the ultimate beauty achieved through his outstanding white porcelain manufacturing techniques. He brings out the neatness, dignified appearance, and prestige of his vessels by using only soft and smooth forms without relying on decoration.

Particularly famous works include the "White Porcelain Vase with Whirlpool Design," inspired by the whirlpools of Naruto in Tokushima Prefecture, "White Porcelain Yellowish Green Glazed Vase with Ears with Design of Gongsunju (ginkgo)," and "White Porcelain Green Glazed Red Tea Bowl with Design of Peony Carving" with fan-like carving in yellowish green on the bottom half of the white porcelain.

Imaizumi Imaemon

Imaizumi Imaemon is a potter of Nabeshima ware, a type of Arita porcelain that was first produced as gifts for the shoguns and other feudal lords in the Edo period. The characteristic feature of Imaemon Imaemon's pottery is "Iro-Nabeshima," white porcelain with overglaze painting in three colors (red, yellow, and green). In 1971, Imaizumi Imaemon's "Iro-Nabeshima" was designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property of Japan.

Imaizumi Imaemon's techniques include sumi-hajiri (sumi-hajiri), a technique in which a pattern is drawn out in black ink, and fukiboku (spraying), a technique in which gosuzu is sprayed on the surface of a potter's wheel. The most famous Imaemon works, such as the "Bowl with a design of clock grass in sumi sumi sumi hajiri in overglaze enamels" and the "Dish with a chrysanthemum design in blown sumi sumi sumi", are said to be particularly valuable.