At the foot of the sacred mountain Hakusan
In the center of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, the region of Kaga in Ishikawa prefecture expands across the base of Hakusan, one of Japan’s so-called “three famous mountains,” facing the Sea of Japan. At the end of the 16th century, this region became the domain of the Maeda daimyo who were celebrated for their cultural pursuits. Since that time, a variety of forms of arts and cultures have thrived in this region.
The founder of Maeda Toshiharu
It is well understood today that porcelain refers to white, high-fired ceramics. At the time of the 17th century, when porcelain production began in Japan, elite members of society in Japan as well as other parts of the world well valued porcelain highly. At that time lacking knowledge of the techniques for manufacturing it, Europeans referred to porcelain as “white gold,” and it is said porcelain was more coveted and valuable than actual gold. In 1655, the first lord of the Daishōji domain, Maeda Toshiharu (1618–1660), initiated the region’s first production of porcelain. Daishōji was an offshoot of the Maeda clan’s center, the Kaga domain. Toshiharu’s extraordinary enthusiasm for cultural and artistic pursuits led to success in establishing Honshu’s first porcelain manufacturing center. Kutani ware, then, can be understood as emerging out of the interests in culture amongst the Maeda clan in Daishōji.
Kutani ware: from the village of Kutani
The term Kutani ware derives from the name of the village of Kutani in the Daishōji domain. Today, Kutani is a famous hot springs destination, about 13 km from the town of Yamanaka Onsen in the city of Kaga. In the first half of the 17th century, the discovery of China stone (in Japanese, tōseki), the raw material for porcelain, ushered in the establishment of kilns in the Daishōji domain.
In 1979, this region was designated a historic landmark for its porcelain kiln sites. Today, visitors can find there a stone monument honoring Maeda Toshiharu and his retainer Gotō Saijirō, who administered the practical aspects of the porcelain business. In more recent years, efforts to preserve and maintain the birthplace of Kutani have continued.
Predecessors of Van Gogh
The earliest Kutani wares are called Ko-kutani (old Kutani). Ko-kutani can be divided into several styles, but among them the most characteristic is ao-te (bluish-green overglaze). Ao-te works tend to bear abstract designs with green, yellow and other color overglazes that completely coat vessels’ surfaces.
Red, yellow, green, blue, and purple
Another representative style of Ko-kutani is gosai (five color) overglaze. Five colors of overglaze—red, yellow, green, deep blue, and purple—are used for gosai landscape designs, bird-and-flower designs, and geometric patterns. With such vivid colors applied with strong brushwork, gosai epitomizes the dynamic aesthetic of Kutani. The modern ceramist Kitaōji Rosanjin（1883–1959）praised Ko-kutani highly, describing it as “terribly artistic.”
Extinction and revival
Ko-kutani suddenly disappeared in the beginning of the 18th century, and the cause remains unclear. Over the span of the next century, virtually no porcelain was made in Kaga. Amidst this state of decline, in 1807 the Kasugayama kiln in Kanazawa was formed, and it began to develop a new stylistic approach to Kutani wares. Thereafter, more kilns emerged, such as the Wakasugi kiln (1811), and the Ono kiln (1819). The opening of the Yoshidaya kiln in the village of Kutani in 1824, however, is generally regarded as the dawn of the revival of Kutani wares. While there was competition between these kilns, overall their activities resulted in the revitalization of Kutani ceramics production.
Prompted by exposure in international expositions, Kutani ceramics began to be actively exported during the second half of the 19th century.
At expositions held in various places in the West, including Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), and Paris (1878), Kutani ceramics were prominently displayed and received a large number of awards.
This period also saw a transformation of Kutani’s style, with heavy reliance on red and gold overglazes, Western colorants, and other new technologies. Representative of this period are opulent designs with more detail and complexity than in previous forms of Kutani ceramics.
Ceramic production begins with the raw material of clay. The raw material of Kutani ware porcelain is hanasaka tōseki, China clay produced in Hanasaka-cho, in the city of Komatsu.
Kikuneri ("Chrysanthemum" Kneading), Kutani wareOriginal Source: Ishikawa Kutani Porcelain Cooperative Union
Wheel throwing, Kutani wareOriginal Source: Ishikawa Kutani Porcelain Cooperative Union
Firing, Kutani wareOriginal Source: Ishikawa Kutani Porcelain Cooperative Union
Joining together clay and crystal glass
The raw material of Kutani ware porcelain is China clay (tōseki), and the raw material of overglaze enamels is crystal glass. Mixing the colorants iron oxide and cobalt oxide with crystal glass can result in intensely brilliant, translucent colors. The adage “there are no Kutani ceramics without painted decoration (etsuke)” suggests the importance of overglaze enamels to the definition of Kutani wares.
Connoisseurs of Kutani ceramics tend to assess their quality according to the thickness of the overglaze enamels, which are seen as imparting an expressive strength and are the most significant characteristic of Kutani ware.
Kutani ware today
We can define contemporary Kutani ware with one word: diversity.
Today, approximately 300 individuals—from emerging professionals to master ceramists—are immersed in the creation of Kutani ware, striving day and night in their production of distinct works.
Places to visit
To experience the past and present of Kutani ware, the following museums are recommended. Kutaniyaki Art Museum (Kaga) is the only Kutani ware museum in the world. Substantial collections of ceramics as well as historical documents are also housed in the Komatsu City Museum (in Komatsu), the Nomi Kutani Ceramics Museum (in Nomi), and the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art (in Kanazawa). A world-class modern Kutani collection can be viewed at the Keisei Isogaya Museum (in Nasushiobara, Tochigi prefecture).
Information provided by Kutaniyaki Art Museum、Keisei Isogaya Museum 、Ishikawa Kutani Porcelain Cooperative Union, Komatsu City Museum、Nomi Kutani Ceramics Museum
Photo by Tsutai Yoshitaka
Text written by Nakamura Taichi
English Translation by Meghen Jones
Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum
Exhibition created by Yamamoto Masako (Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS))
Suzuyama Masako & Mao Jiaqi, Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University