Kutani Ware

Overglaze enamel porcelain first made in 1655 for the Maeda daimyo of Kaga (Ishikawa prefecture)

By Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University

Kutani ware producing area extends beneath the Mt. HakusanArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

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.  

Monument commemorating Lord Maeda Toshiharu as the founder of Kutani ware (平成27年) by Photo by Tsutai YoshitakaArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

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.

Porcelain stone mining field, Kutani wareArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

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. 

Kutani VillageArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

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.

Ko-Kutani, aode-style flat plate with plum blossoms (17世紀後半)Original Source: Kutaniyaki Art Museum

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.

Ko-Kutani, hyakkade-style grand flat plate with flowers around Chinese sages (17世紀後半)Original Source: Kutaniyaki Art Museum

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.” 

Flat plate with lily, Yoshida-ya kiln, Kutani ware (文政7年~天保2年)Original Source: Kutaniyaki Art Museum

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.  

Kutani Ware - Akae Kinsai-style Flower Pattern Hoshakuzan Floral-shaped Bowl (明治12年~大正5年) by Asai Ichigo (1836-1916)Original Source: Keisei Isogaya Museum

Kutani overseas

Prompted by exposure in international expositions, Kutani ceramics began to be actively exported during the second half of the 19th century. 

Kinrande-style vase with birds and flowers, kutani ware (明治9年) by Matsumoto Sahei (1851-1918)Original Source: Keisei Isogaya Museum

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. 

Grand incense burner with drangons, Kutani ware (明治11年) by Haruna Shigeharu (1847-1913)Original Source: Keisei Isogaya Museum

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. 

Hanasaka China Stone, Kutani wareOriginal Source: Ishikawa Kutani Porcelain Cooperative Union

Raw material

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

Overglaze polychrome enamel decoration, 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. 

Dishes, Kutani wareOriginal Source: Ishikawa Kutani Porcelain Cooperative Union

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.

Dishes of aka-e, Kutani wareOriginal Source: Ishikawa Kutani Porcelain Cooperative Union

Kutani ware today 

We can define contemporary Kutani ware with one word: diversity. 

Blue-and-white dishes, Kutani wareOriginal Source: Ishikawa Kutani Porcelain Cooperative Union

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.

Kutani Ware - Kutaniyaki Art Museum of Ishikawa PrefectureOriginal Source: Kutaniyaki Art Museum

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).

Komatsu City Museum, Kutani wareOriginal Source: Komatsu City Museum

Komatsu City Museum

Nomi Kutani Ceramics Museum, Kutani wareOriginal Source: Nomi Kutani Ceramics Museum

Nomi Kutani Ceramics Museum

Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art 

Keisei Isogaya Museum, Kutani WareArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Keisei Isogaya Museum (Nasushiobara, Tochigi prefecture)

Credits: Story

Information provided by Kutaniyaki Art MuseumKeisei Isogaya Museum Ishikawa Kutani Porcelain Cooperative Union, Komatsu City MuseumNomi 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

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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