The Significance of Japanese Pottery

by Michelle Lin

In the modern world, decor and design trends drop as fast as a splash of tea on your counter. On the other hand, the art of Japanese pottery is an ancient tradition, extending far into the past. Japanese pottery is frequently handmade – contrasting industrial, mass-produced dinnerware. It reminds both its makers and users of their own humanity and individuality. From colorful Imari ware plates, Hagi ware rice bowls, Kintsugi pottery, and the beautifully crafted tea bowl of Raku ware used in traditional Japanese tea ceremony, Japanese ceramic ware showcases the art and artistry of the masterful hands that made them.

Kintsugi

Just like the perfect pot of tea, the creation of Japanese ceramic ware blends all four elements—earth, which creates the basis of the clay and glaze; water, to soften the clay and the glaze; and fire and air, to bake the clay into sturdy wares. It aptly demonstrates Shinto, the indigenous Japanese religion emphasizing the sacred spirit of animate and inanimate things.

With an ancient tradition like this, the variety of styles that have developed cover a wide breadth. And we’re ready to spill the tea on the top Japanese pottery styles. 

7 Styles of Japanese Ceramics and Pottery

In the tradition of handmade wares, no two are exactly alike—just as no two artisans use precisely the same techniques. That said, different prefectures in Japan produce different styles of pottery that you can identify by the glazes, forms, and materials used to make them. 

#1: Arita Ware

Arita Ware

Compared to other styles of Japanese pottery, Arita ware (also called Imari ware) gained widespread popularity fairly recently. However, artisans in Arita have created ornately detailed porcelain wares since the 1600s. Inspired by Chinese porcelain, Arita ware artisans adorn their porcelain wares with colored enamel in luxurious patterns.  

#2: Seto Ware

Japanese pottery artisans from Seto are known for their beautiful glaze work. The clay that comes from Seto is a perfect canvas for vibrant glazes because it turns a bright white during the firing process. Look for bowls, plates, vases, jugs, and even porcelain dolls produced in Seto.

#3: Mino Ware

If you’re delving into Japanese pottery, you’ll likely encounter Mino ware, which makes up a substantial portion of the market. Since the 7th century, artisans in Mino have produced a wide range of pottery, from tea bowls to dinnerware to decorative and ritual objects. 

The sculpting, firing, and glazing processes range from roughly hewn and fired in a large open kiln to intricately sculpted and fired in a massive stair-step kiln. Pottery is so central to Mino’s culture that the region hosts a month-long international ceramics festival each year.

#4: Tokoname Ware

In Tokoname, artisans have created water jugs, teapots, and storage vessels in tunnel kilns for around 900 years. This form of Japanese pottery is traditionally less intricate. Some modern Tokoname artisans imbue the form with a contemporary style, while others commit to traditional practices and values. For a reliable, sturdy, and minimal teapot, look to Tokoname ware.

#5: Shigaraki Ware

Japanese Sake cup Shigaraki

Shigaraki’s ecological environment has shaped the region’s relationship with pottery for centuries. Three elements make Shigaraki a natural center for Japanese pottery:

  • The abundant supply of ancient lake sediment (which forms supple clay) 
  • The surrounding mountains (ideal for building kilns)
  • The hearty forests (a regenerative fuel source)

In recent years, Shigaraki has been known for producing high-quality hibachis and tanuki sculptures. Tanuki are adorable raccoon dogs native to Japan. The Shigaraki tanuki sculptures usually depict them as friendly, saki-peddling monks. 

#6: Bizen Ware

Bizen Japanese earthenware

Bizen (from the Okayama prefecture) produces incredibly durable Japanese ceramics and pottery by way of a slow-firing method. The method, which uses dried straw as fuel, also leaves a delicate, subtle mark on the surface of the pottery. Look for natural, organic scrapings that disrupt the perfect surface of the wares. These exemplify wabi-sabi, the Japanese philosophy that flaws and imperfections lend every object, person, creature, or place its unique beauty.

#7: Kutani Ware

Since 1979, the village of Kutani has been recognized as a cultural and historic landmark in honor of the porcelain kilns it hosts. In the 17th century, Kutani porcelain was known for its blue, green, and yellow glazes (some even suspect this Japanese pottery inspired Van Gogh’s masterpieces). In more recent centuries, artisans have turned towards more detailed decorations created with red and gold glazes.

Porcelain vs. Stoneware

As you can see, Japanese pottery comes in a wide variety of styles (the list above is just a sample to get your appetite going). One of the reasons for this is that each region uses natural resources available locally to make pottery. The two most common Japanese pottery types of ceramics are porcelain and stoneware. Here’s how they compare:

  • Porcelain is a lightly-colored clay that can be stretched very thin. When fired at high heat, Japanese porcelain is bright white, dense, and unlikely to absorb water, so it won’t grow bacteria when you eat or drink from it. 
  • Stoneware is easy to sculpt, gray before firing, and lighter once it has gone through the kiln. Like porcelain, stoneware is not very porous, so it’s food safe. Unlike Japanese porcelain, stoneware has a reputation for being very strong.

Both ceramics are treasures, and each has a natural function—save your porcelain tea set for ceremonies, and use your stoneware dinner plates every night.

Japanese pottery

Discover More Ancient Japanese Traditions with Bokksu

If reading about the traditions of Japanese pottery has made you thirsty for more, we have good news. The Bokksu Japanese subscription box brings a monthly curated selection of authentic Japanese snacks sourced directly from local snackmakers from Japan. Whether you want to keep your pantry consistently stocked with authentic Japanese drinks and snacks or are searching for an authentic tea ceremony set to begin your Japanese pottery collection, Bokksu has an experience for you.

Authentic Tea Ceremony Set

Sources: 

Google Arts and Culture. Arita Ware. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/dgVxJ6Te7PlfJw?hl=en 

Seto Yaki (Seto Ware) Development Association. Features of Seto Ware.  https://www.setoyakishinkokyokai.jp/en/setoware.html 

International Ceramics Festival Mino. What is Mino Ceramic Ware? https://www.icfmino.com/english/outline/minoyaki.php 

Google Arts and Culture. Tokoname Ware. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/tokoname-ware-art-research-center-ritsumeikan-university/PAWxgb4dZN9QKg?hl=en 

Google Arts and Culture. Shigaraki Ware. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/fgUx6r1pabGzLQ?hl=en 

Google Arts and Culture. Bizen ware. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/mQWRQv5HpZy9IQ?hl=en 

Google Arts and Culture. Kutani Ware. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/OwUBYtwR9qa_JA?hl=en 

The Pottery Wheel. Types of Clay for Pottery – The 5 Main Types of Ceramic Clay. https://thepotterywheel.com/types-of-clay-for-pottery/#porcelain 


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