November 02, 2017


An outline drawn with a fine brush and a powerful design made of complex layers of colorful paint on white porcelain are the classic hallmarks of KUTANI pottery called Gosaide (five colors) and Aote (four colors without red).

The beautiful indigo painting called Sometsuke (blue&white) is expressed by skilled manipulation of a brush saturated with ink. Ink pushed out of a paint brush pulls back into the brush after depositing a mark on the clay. This push and pull of ink and brushstroke produces gradations of dark and light, creating a visage of flower petals and leaves.

Many pieces using the red paint style (Akae) include symbols of Kisshou Mon (representing good fortune) on the surface of porcelain using a fine-drawing technique called Saibyou-Ga. The dynamic and sophisticated pieces decorated with gold and red paint are called Kinrande.

The production of Japanese porcelain started in the town of Arita in Kyushu.
The origin of Arita pottery dates to 1616, when Sanpei Li found suitable clay for porcelain production. It was a tumultuous period. Only a few years before, the government of Japan (Edo-Shogunate) had banned Christianity, and within twenty years (1636) the Shimabara Rebellion pitted the Tokugawa Shogunate against the Roman Catholics and Ronin rebels. Finally, the Sakoku Edict of 1635 closed the country from the rest of the world. But, even throughout this difficult political climate, the production of porcelain continued and was exported to world.

In 1655, after receiving orders from Toshiie Maeda, Saijiro Goto visited the town of Arita in Hizen to learn their pottery making technique. Kutani was the technique that Goto brought back from Arita. As soon as perfect clay was found in the land of Kutani in 1655, many of beautiful art pieces were created utilizing the Arita technique.

However, within less than 50 years, Kutani had abruptly disappeared without explanation. In 1807, about 100 years later, the Kaga-clan resurrected the Kutani technique. The Yoshida-Ya kiln and others are now famous.

I wonder at the reasons behind this interrupted history. This is how I imagine the history of Kutani unfolded:

The persecution of Christians in Japan began in 1587 under the direction of Hideyoshi Toyotomi. After Christianity was banned in 1613 and the Shimabara Rebellion failed in 1637, the only choice for Japanese Christians was to hide, and many headed to the land of Kaga at the invitation of Toshiie Maeda.

The great Kaga-clan temple, Daishouji, is now written (in Chinese characters) as “big holy temple”. The word “holy” began to be used only when the land was governed by Maeda, even though it had been written “right” or “win” before. There are theories that Maeda meant it to signify a holy place for Christians.

The Arita craftsmen were part of the migration of Japanese Christians to Kaga. They hid in the mountains of Kutani, and their Christian beliefs are reflected in the high quality pieces that they created. Many pieces of ancient Kutani include hidden crosses in their designs.

The name of the land itself, Kutani (written as "Nine Valleys" in Chinese characters), is possibly named after the closest place to the cross (god).
The reason of their vanishing within fifty years may be attributed to them hiding from the Edo Shogunate government.

After 100 years, Kutani pottery was restarted by the Kaga clan. Yoshida-Ya built a kiln at the same site of the ancient Kutani kiln. The hidden cross designs included on the ancient Kutani pieces reappeared on the new Kutani copies of the original pieces. The cross, of course, is the symbol of their Christian belief.

When they decided to shut down Kutani production, it's possible that they had been promised that Kutani pottery would be revived 100 years later.

Naoki Uemura