Seto, Japan’s Ceramics Capital with over 1000 Years of History and Tradition

Seto, the town of “Setomono”
Located in Aichi prefecture about 20 kilometers east of Nagoya, Seto lies nearly in the center of Japan. In Japanese, the term “Setomono”— literally, “Seto things”—has come to refer to glazed ceramics in general. This term reflects the representative role that Seto ware has played within the entire Japanese ceramic tradition.
High quality clays
Seto boasts two types of high quality clays, kibushi and gairome. Known for their excellent plasticity and refractoriness, they contain almost no iron. Seto potters have relied on these clays to create white wares ideally suited for a variety of decorative treatments and glazes.
1000+ years of history
Ceramic production in Seto began around 1000 years ago during the late Heian period (794–1185). Over time, production has continued without interruption, varying only to correspond to changes in domestic or world affairs. It continues to thrive today. Seen in global perspective, this kind of ceramics production center can only be said to exist in Seto. 
Various glazes
Seto ceramics dating from the Kamakura period through the Muromachi period (the end of the 12th century–late 16th century) relied on Chinese ceramics as models, and are called “Ko-seto,” or “old Seto.” Thereafter, a greater variety of glazes were used. This wide palette of glazes is a defining feature of Seto ware. 
Seto Wares and Tea Culture 
Production of brown and black-glazed (tenmoku) tea bowls, tea containers (chaire), and related utensils emerged in Seto around the 14th century, in the Kamakura period, alongside the rise in tea ceremony practice. In the latter half of the 16th century, tea ceramics culture blossomed and expanded to the Mino region. By that time, the Momoyama style of distinctly Japanese ceramics emerged, evincing a high level of design and creativity.
Hongyō Ware 
The word “hongyō” refers to the “original industry” of Seto wares, in contrast to the ceramics production in Seto at the beginning of the 19th century that was called “shinsei” (newly made) or “shinsei-yaki” (newly made wares). Before porcelain production began in Seto, hongyō wares represented a brilliant phase of Edo ceramics. The new types of ceramics created at the time included horse eye plates (umanome-zara), “stone” plates (ishi-zara), oil plates (andon-zara), and barley straw wares (mugiwara-te).
Seto blue and white (sometsuke)
At the start of the nineteenth century, Seto potters successfully began to produce porcelain. One of the features of much Seto porcelain is cobalt blue decoration with a painterly style that could be mistaken for ink wash painting. Seto’s long history of two types of ceramics production—stoneware and porcelain—distinguishes it from other major ceramics manufacturing centers within world ceramics history.
Seto ware appreciated throughout the world
In the Meiji period (1868–1912), Seto ceramics production was directed towards foreign markets, and Seto ceramics were frequently displayed at European and North American international expositions. Delicately painted blue and white Seto porcelain with bird and flower designs captured the attention of Western audiences, later exerting a significant influence on Art Nouveau and Art Deco design.  
Seto, Capital of Ceramics
In the 20th century, the modernization of industry progressed rapidly. While eating and drinking vessels and decorative objects were once the main products of Seto, in the twentieth century production diversified to include sanitary ceramics, insulators, scientific supplies, architectural ceramics, and more. It is said that ceramics that cannot be made in Seto do not exist. Truly a wide variety of ceramics have been made over the course of Seto’s history. 
Seto, the “Little Edo of Owari” 
The large number of craftsmen and related industry workers living in Seto resulted in its moniker the “Little Edo of Owari [Province]”—the bustling ceramics center of Seto was thought to be a smaller version of Edo, the former name for Japan’s capital of Tokyo. A unique lifestyle and culture of craft emerged in Seto that reflected the ambitions of ceramics producers.
Seto novelty figurines
In the Taishō period (1912–1926) during World War I, the worldwide importation of porcelain figurines from Germany was halted. In turn, Americans began to order porcelain figurines from Japan, and the manufacturing and export of porcelain figures began in Seto. Porcelain figurines became a leading product of Seto, especially after World War II. Referred to as “Seto novelties,” these figurines’ delicacy of shaping and decoration garnered praise in Europe and America as well as Japan. 
Modern Seto
With 1000 years of history and tradition, even today Seto is home to a large number of kilns specializing in a variety of ceramic goods. Tradition and modernity have become fused in Seto, Japan’s beloved ceramics capital.
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information provided by Setogura Museum, Photo Studio Iri, The Aichi Prefectural Silica Sand Mining Association

Text written by Hattori Fumitaka, Director, Seto City Art Museum

English Translation by Meghen Jones

Exhibition created by Shimizu Ayano & Kusuki Chizu Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Supported by Sato Kazunobu, Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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