24 January 2023

Interview with Nakaya Shinichi, Specialist of Kutani Ware - History Part 1

Shin-ichi Nakaya, Director of The Kutani porcelain Art Museum discusses historical stories and painting styles of Kutani ware.

Photo by KUTANism


  • When did Kutani ware start?
  • What was the Ko-Kutani painting style like?
  • How was overglaze porcelain regarded in the early Edo period, when Ko-Kutani ware was created?
  • How was it possible for such amazing Kutani ware to be born in the deep mountains of Kaga?
  • Although Ko-Kutani ware is still highly valued today, production stopped after about 50 years. Why?
  • What happened to Kutani ware after that?
  • What kind of person was Honda Sadakichi, the founder of Wakasugi Kiln?
  • Then, who revived Kutani ware and how?
  • What kind of Kutani ware was created at Miyamotoya kiln?
  • Find your favorite Kutani ware 

When did Kutani ware start?

Kutani ware was introduced in 1655, during the early Edo period (1603 CE–1868 CE), by Maeda Toshiharu, the Lord of Kaga-Daishoji Domain. He belonged to a clan closely tied to the past two great unifiers of Japan, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The discovery of Kutani pottery stone, a raw material for porcelain production, at the Kutani gold mine triggered the manufacturing of overglaze porcelain. The kiln built in Kutani Village, where the pottery stone was found, operated for about 50 years. Kutani ware made during that period was later called ko-Kutani style ware.

What was the Ko-Kutani painting style like?

Ko-Kutani ware is very dynamic and strays from ideals of beauty that is symmetrical perfection. It has a soul-stirring strength. There are two painting styles. One is the gosai-de, a five-colored way of painting with ultramarine blue, red, purple, green and yellow. The second is ao-te, an overpainting technique using green, yellow and purple.

The gosai-de style emphasizes blank spaces like nihonga–a Japanese-style of painting.

The ao-te style paints over the ware's entire surface.

Both styles mentioned above adopt Chinese styles from the Ming period. However, these ko-Kutani styles do not imitate Chinese techniques, and are completely original. In the 17th century, when ko-Kutani ware first emerged, its originality surpassed artworks from both the East and West. ko-Kutani is not merely craftware, but brilliant artwork that goes beyond the art of painting. In fact, European and American museums also highly regard ko-Kutani ware, and have added it to their collections.

How was overglaze porcelain regarded in the early Edo period, when Ko-Kutani ware was created?

Overglaze porcelain was still a rarity in Japan, and the value of porcelain that came from China was comparable to that of gold. At this time, the town of Arita in Saga Prefecture was the only place in Japan to overglaze porcelain, and production methods required advanced techniques. In addition to this, the country was under national isolation. It's likely that information on China, where overglaze techniques originated, must have been scarce. In the midst of all this, Kutani ware—brilliant overglaze porcelain, appeared in the mountains of Kaga, far from the region of Kyushu where Arita was located. If an analogy were to be used, it's like saying, "Kutani ware is comparable to inventing a color TV in an era where there was yet to be a black-and-white TV and only radio." 

How was it possible for such amazing Kutani ware to be born in the deep mountains of Kaga?

This was possible because of the Maeda family's backing. At the time, the Maeda family was determined to "conquer the world with culture" in order to show their strength against the Tokugawa family and other feudal lords. They must have had a very trained eye for art and culture, as they headhunted talented artists of the Kano and Rimpa schools and acquired imported artifacts that were as valuable as gold. The skilled painters group, the Kano school, exclusively assigned to create fusuma-e (paintings on sliding-door panels) and wall paintings for the shogunate, while the Rimpa school was famous for its well-designed paintings and tea utensils with gold and silver effectively used. It was during this time that the Maeda family found the pottery stone that would become a material for overglaze porcelain, and poured their energy into the business of producing it—announcing to the world, "The Maeda family is here!" With all their power and immense wealth, the Maeda family were able to introduce advanced technology from Arita, to recruit top tier artists and technicians, and through their cultivated eye for beauty, succeed in creating ko-Kutani, a work of art that boasts overwhelming originality. 

Although Ko-Kutani ware is still highly valued today, production stopped after about 50 years. Why?

It's been said that there are various reasons and causes, but there is no definite theory. Being cloaked in many mysteries is part of the ko-Kutani's charm. Possible theories include the death of Maeda Toshiharu, financial problems due to famine, power struggles within the domain, interference by the Tokugawa shogunate, and so on. It is difficult to answer this question by choosing one theory over another, and I believe that a combination of reasons led to the closure of the ko-Kutani kilns. 

What happened to Kutani ware after that?

In the late Edo period, about 100 years after the closure of Kutani village kiln, new kilns for overglaze porcelain reopened in significant numbers within the Kaga-Daishoji domains. This is known as "The Revival of Kutani." Let's trace the flow of the Kutani revival in order. Production of overglaze porcelain resumed at the Kasugayama kiln in the territory of the Kaga domain. Aoki Mokubei, a master craftsman from Kyoto, was invited to the kiln, where he created Kyo ware (Kyoto pottery) styled pieces such as gosu-akae style ware, known for its impressive use of red color.

Although Aoki was already a famous Kyo ware potter, he traveled all the way from Kyoto to Kaga, exclaiming, "This is the land where Kutani ware was once made. If I can find the same material, I'll make it." Even in the latter half of the Edo period, 100 years after the production of ko-Kutani ware had stopped, it was never forgotten. In fact, ko-Kutani ware had a magnetism that attracted a successful master craftsman from Kyoto, the center of culture.

Aoki eventually returned to Kyoto, but his disciple Honda Sadakichi, remained in the Kaga domain. Honda discovered pottery stone in Hanasaka, in the present suburbs of Komatsu City and opened the Wakasugi kiln.

What kind of person was Honda Sadakichi, the founder of Wakasugi Kiln?

Without him, the Kutani ware of today might not have existed. He was a man of two feats: one was the discovery of Hanasaka pottery stone, and the other was cultivating human resources.

Ko-Kutani ware was initially made using pottery stone from Kutani village, but the village was too deep in the mountains and, hence, inconvenient to get to. Honda searched for pottery stone in Kanazawa, but was unsuccessful. He then extended his search up around the Komatsu area, where he luckily found the Hanasaka pottery stone. Unlike today, a scientific approach was not possible, so the discovery of this stone can be attributed to Honda's deep attachment.

The Hanasaka pottery stone, the material for Kutani ware, is mined to this day. Which is to say, thanks to Honda Sadakichi, the production of Kutani ware is possible.

What's more, the Wakasugi kiln, opened by Honda, has nurtured many master craftsmen who have greatly contributed to the continued development of Kutani ware. Aoya Gen-emon, who played an active role at the Yoshidaya kiln–representative of revitalized Kutani, as well as Saida Dokai and Kutani Shoza, who both eventually led the industry of Japan Kutani (internationally traded Kutani ware), honed their skills at Wakasugi kiln.

Although the Wakasugi kiln also produced overglaze porcelain, most of the pottery was sometsuke-dyed (expressed only in ultramarine blue), which required fewer kiln firings.

Incidentally, the overglaze porcelain fired at Wakasugi kiln was not called Kutani ware. It was called Wakasugi ware. In terms of the concept of that time, it could not be called Kutani ware because it was not made within the Kutani village.

Source: Kutaniyaki Mag

Then, who revived Kutani ware and how?

The key person was Den-emon Yoshidaya, a wealthy merchant of the Daishoji clan and a great man of culture. He adored Kutani ware and passionately hoped for its revival. Yoshidaya threw away his personal property and even borrowed money to open a kiln in Kutani village, a sacred place for Kutani ware, even though it was not conveniently located.

This became the Yoshidaya kiln. Here the firing of overglaze porcelain was resumed, truly reviving Kutani ware. Many of Yoshidaya kiln's pottery pieces are reminiscent of ko-Kutani's ao-te style.
According to an old remaining letter, the Kutani ware of Yoshidaya kiln was considered popular in Kyoto for inheriting the ko-Kutani style. Some of the outstanding features of Kutani ware made at Yoshida kiln include the depth of the translucent paint, use of skillful painting techniques, and a sophisticated design. Moreover, although Yoshidaya kiln ware inherits the ko-Kutani style, the pieces are completely original. Yoshidaya Den-emon, a cultural figure with a strong desire to revive Kutani ware, and young geniuses in the field of overglaze painting, such as Aoya Gen-emon who was brought in from the Wakasugi kiln, did not want to imitate ko-Kutani, just as ko-Kutani did not want to imitate techniques and styles from China. I think that the Yoshidaya kiln inherited not only the ko-Kutani style but also their predecessors’ conviction in the production process.

However, the Kutani kiln operated for only about two years, and the Yoshidaya kiln moved to a village closer to a town called Yamashiro. Kutani Village must have been hard to access, I suppose. However, the passion for the revival of Kutani ware was a well-known fact, and due to the high reputation of the works, pieces by Yoshidaya kiln were still called Kutani ware. Though having gained popularity, the Yoshidaya kiln was discontinued after seven years because of the death of Denemon and his son, and a debt load. After this, the Yoshidaya kiln was handed over to their ex-head clerk Miyamotoya Uemon, and it operated as Miyamotoya kiln.

What kind of Kutani ware was created at Miyamotoya kiln?

The Miyamotoya kiln was where the still popular technique of aka-e saibyo (red detailed-drawing), or fine painting with red glaze, was successfully developed. Iidaya Hachiroemon was the main potter at this kiln. The Yoshidaya kiln used the ko-Kutani blue style, while the Miyamotoya kiln focused exclusively on akae (red painting). Other regions also implemented Aka-e, but Miyamotoya kiln's was incredibly detailed, expressing an unrivaled uniqueness. Again, Kutaniyaki's "pursuit of originality, not imitation," gave birth to a new technique and style called Aka-e Saibyo.

From thereon, the prime Kutani kiln inherited Miyamotoya kiln, and invited Eiraku Wazen from Kyoto as a technical instructor. Eiraku, who was accustomed to handling gold, ingrained the kinrande (painting gold like a frill or belt) style into Kutani ware.

The akae-kinrande style was subsequently born by combining Eiraku's Kinrande style with the Akae-Saibyo style inherited from Miyamotoya kiln. Further on, from the end of the Edo period through the beginning of the Meiji period (1868 CE–1912 CE), Kutani Shoza created the saishoku-kinrande style, which combined the style of traditional overglaze painting from ko-Kutani ware with the neutral tints of Western paints. This piece is the pinnacle of Kutani Shoza's work, and was exhibited at the first National Industrial Exhibition (1877). Incorporating all the decorations used in Kutani ware, nothing as extravagant has ever been made. No matter when or how many times you see it, it's wonderful. The saishoku-kinrande style and akae-kinrande style were highly acclaimed both in Japan and abroad as trading goods, or "Japan Kutani," in the Meiji period.

I've reflected on the history and painting styles from ko-Kutani to revived Kutani. When we refer to even a single piece, there are stories in the styles of successive kilns, and it vividly reflects the historical backgrounds as well as the thoughts and feelings of the people involved, including the potters. That's what makes Kutani ware so unique and intriguing. It's also great that it has consistently been highly regarded. Kutani ware has kept developing its originality while incorporating techniques and painting styles from China and Kyoto all through periods. That spirit has been passed down to this day. It is also said that modern-day Kutani ware has as many styles as the number of its artists.

Part 2 of the interview is below.

Find your favorite Kutani ware 

With its vivid hue and bold pattern, just one piece of the Kutani ware adds a touch of color to the dining table. Please visit our Kutani ware collection page.

Kutani ware Collection