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Japan Kutani – Popular the World Over

Kutani-yaki, or Kutani porcelain, enraptures viewers with intricate designs and beautiful colors. Kutani porcelain is regarded as the pinnacle of Japanese painted porcelain, and is widely known overseas as Japan Kutani. Recently, there has been a striking increase in the number of young artists, the works of whom are more modern and contemporary as they maintain the tradition. Diverse new crafts are being created one after another. Kazuyoshi Kitamura, the second generation owner of the Kutani Chikuryu Wares, says, “One of the traditions of Kutani ware is allowing for free expression, in spite of its long history.”is allowed even though it is a craft with a long history."

Kazuyoshi Kitamura

“My father produced countless works with a Kitamae ships theme. I, on the other hand, have many works depicting animals. I combine traditional techniques and patterns found in Kutani porcelain and create lively figures so that a story can be told in a single image. It is not uncommon in Kutani porcelain for children to have different styles than their parents. The art itself has undergone various changes to reach its current state.”

The Evolution of Expression is the Essence of Kutani

Kutani porcelain originated in the early Edo period. The Daishonji clan, which ruled the present-day city of Kaga, began to learn techniques from Arita procelain as part of its efforts to increase production. This old Kutani style came to an end less than a hundred years later. Kutani procelain was revived another 100 years later. When the porcelain industry began to see success in Seto, Aichi, the smoke once again began to rise from the kilns of southern Ishikawa. During the same period, Hanasaka pottery stone, a raw material used in pottery, was discovered in what is now Komatsu City, and the revival of Kutani ceramics began. After the end of the Edo period, Kutani lost the backing of the clan and temporarily saw a recession in popularity, but began to regain momentum with the entry of former clan members and the creation of new techniques. Kutani procelain made a large impact at the World Expositions in Europe and the United States. By the middle of the Meiji period (1868-1912), Kutani procelain had grown in popularity to take the number one spot in the Japanese pottery industry.
While Hanasaka pottery stone is a white stone that must be mentioned when speaking of Kutani procelain, it was not necessarily superior to that created in other regions. But as Kitamura explains, it made Kutani porcelain unique.
”It has high iron content, and when fired, it becomes gray; it lacks whiteness. The reason they had to paint the entire surface was to use the skills of the craftsman to make up for the shortcomings of the material. Using the Gosai and Aote techniques, which had been used since the times when old Kutani porcelain was made, they developed a more modern variety of painting techniques. During the Meiji period, when Kutani procelain began to garner popularity from abroad, new techniques such as Akae Hosoe and Kinrande were introduced. Kutani procelain continues to evolve freely in response to the needs to the world.”

Painted Images to Inspire Children

Kitamura has his own experience that made him feel the need for change. About ten years ago, in a project that he participated in, a beetle he made out of Kutani porcelain got a reaction from an entirely knew audience. He says he has been hired to create unique works for luxury brands and worked with character projects since then.

“Most people think of Kutani procelain as a luxury item that would be shown at an art exhibit. That’s what I once thought myself, and I didn’t think much about trying to reach those in the generations below me. But changing how you present the art draws attention from people who have never thought about it before. Unlike the world of Wabisabi, resplendently painted images can inspire children, even if they know nothing of procelain. I believe Kutani porcelain to be the greatest procelain painting art in Japan. And being the best in Japan means it is the best in the world. It is a Japanese art that is selling the world over, and is filled with possibilities.”

Techniques Passed Down From Parent to Child

On the other hand, in an area in which techniques for pottery are the most diverse than anywhere else in Japan, Seito Tamura inherited the ‘fine brush calligraphy’ which was passed down 4 generations from Kiyoya Koyama who created the art at the end of the Meiji Era. ‘The fine calligraphy’ is a technique unseen elsewhere, in which Japanese ancient literature such as poetry is delicately inscribed onto the porcelain with a very fine brush.

Seito Tamura

Kutani porcelain in the Meiji period worked on separation of tasks, with those directing the project hiring craftsman to form the body and fire the kilns, as well as artists for the paintings. For teacups, they would often just paint the outside, and then fill the white interior with writing to make it more beautiful—this was the beginning of Mouhitsu Saiji, the art of adding fine writing to the porcelain. The first two generations only did the writing, the third did writing and painting, and Tamura does that plus the formation of the body, in an attempt to give the whole a more artful touch.
 ”If you look at some of the older pieces, you can see that even if the writing is extremely detailed, the characters don’t balance well with the image or shape of the porcelain. Writing in only left over space makes it uneven in some cases. So I chose to do the entirety of each piece.”

Evolution and Advancement in Pursuit of Interest

The sticky glaze we use is different from ink in that it doesn’t spread easily, so you need to apply the appropriate pressure in the shape of the characters to match the form of the piece. It looks as though it was written with a brush stroke, but he actually breaks each character into individual parts. It takes countless years of training to do this. When Tamura opens private exhibits, people who have never seen his work are always surprised by the fineness of his writing. The more private exhibits he holds, the more orders he receives for order made products, such as work that contains characters designated by the customer.
”I used to think that Mouhitsu Saiji was all about portentous work made with old characters. But as orders from my clients increased, I noticed that casual works were good as well. For example, what could you express in Mouhitsu Saiji on a mug? I think this is what makes Kutani porcelain what is it.”

Apparently he is sometimes asked to leave the unique Mouhitsu Saiji art to future generations. However, he says, rather than thinking that if there is demand, it will survive, and it will disappear if not. He would prefer to think about working hard to make things that people like and want to use. This line of thought matches with flexible, enduring art of Kutani porcelain, which has used free expression to meet every era and suit countless conditions.

The Home of Kutani Porcelain (Southern Ishikawa)

Kutani porcelain refers to painted ceramics created in Kaga City, Komatsu City, Nomi City, and Kanazawa City in southern Ishikawa. This region is home to countless scenic areas, and the Kaga Onsen Village has been visited by famous cultural figures, writers, and artists.

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