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Japanese Porcelain And Pottery Marks

( Originally Published 1911 )

ALTHOUGH we do not possess any complete documentary evidence on Ceramics in Japan, and although much of what we do know has been obtained by Englishmen in that country, there is no doubt that this art had its origin in remote antiquity, and that the Japanese seem always to have possessed in a high degree a very vivid sentiment of decoration, happily combined with an extraordinary facility of execution.

The making of porcelain only dates from the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Shonsui, returning from China, where he had learned the secrets of the trade, constructed several furnaces in localities where he found the necessary materials. He settled at Arita, in Hizen, the nearest port to which is Imari, a name familiar to all collectors as a common name for all Japanese porcelain. But this old Imari is always white with designs painted in blue under the glaze.

A hundred years after an Imari potter learnt, under the direction of a Chinese established at Nagasaki, the art of painting and decorating in various colours the porcelain which he sold to Chinese merchants. They in their turn exported it to Europe through the East India Company, so that considerable quantities arrived in England, where it is found to-day in a large number of families which have preserved the tastes of their forefathers. Arita or Imari were names indifferently applied to this porcelain.

Amongst the other numerous works where pottery and porcelain were made the following list comprises the chief: Awata, Banko or Imbe, Kaga or Kutani, with beautiful red and gold decoration; Kioto, Kishu, Nabeshima, Satsuma, Soma, Sanda, Seto (in the province of Owari, to-day one of the largest centres of production), and Tokio.

Japanese porcelain is distinguished from Chinese by a closer imitation from nature in the flowers and birds, and, above all, by much more correct design, more chaste and elegant in the representation of the human figure. The marks are often impressed or stamped in a circle, oblong or oval, and frequently, too, Chinese marks are imitated.

It will be useful to indicate some characteristics of the chief of the factories mentioned above.


The oldest Imari has been referred to before. The period of the seventeenth century is noted for decoration with enamels over the glaze. The paste or body was fine and pure, the glaze milk-white, soft, yet not wanting in brilliancy, forming a ground harmonising with the severely simple decoration. The enamel colours were few, but clear and rich in tone, chiefly a dull red, a grass-green, and a lilac-blue. The decorative subjects were, most commonly, floral medallions ; but the dragon, Phoenix, bamboo plum (prunus flower), birds fluttering over a sheaf of corn, and various diaper patterns were constantly used. The designs, sparsely scattered over the surface, give each as wide a margin as possible. The Imari ware, " old Japan ware" exported in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was a distinct type, made to please European taste. The decoration is usually violet, red, and gold added to a plain white glaze or to the blue and white.


This is said to mark the highest degree of perfection and beauty ever attained. The paste is fine, pure, and white, free from the dark gritty particles found nearly always in Imari ware. The blue—the only colour employed, with rare exceptions—is exquisitely soft and clear and seems to float in the milk-white, velvet-like glaze. The designs are of many subjects, etched with wonderful skill. Only within the last few years in Europe did the passion for blue and white induce Japanese owners to sell, and the supply was soon exhausted. It is well to note that modern imitations are not pure white, but greenish, and they are less perfectly potted. It was from Hirado porcelain that Bow and Plymouth modelled their pieces with raised shells and seaweed, and Dresden, too, copied the figures, birds, and flowers in relief. Hirado was a private kiln where the workmen were forbidden to sell without permission.


The feudal chief of Hizen at his private kilns produced blue and white porcelain of fine paste and colour, and generally with a characteristic combination of red. The potters did not, as a rule, use marks, but they copied Chinese marks on pieces which were reproductions of Chinese patterns. Like Hirado, Nabeshima had no occasion to mark as though the porcelain was intended for sale.

The designs and symbolical marks copied from China have the same meaning to the Japanese.

The dragon is often found as a design, in various colours and in gold. The place of dragons in Buddhism explains their frequent appearance—indeed, they are "the masters of the world." If they are offended they punish men with plague, pestilence, and famine. Hence they must be propitiated.

Ho-Ho bird. This was the symbol of the sovereigns of China before the five-clawed dragon. Drawings of this bird vary very much; when represented in the air the feet are thrown back.

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