In over 12,000 years of the Japanese tradition, few items have been considered more precious than finely crafted Japanese pottery. While much of that history is undoubtedly concerned with the production of everyday wares (for storage use or for cooking), the elite classes in Japan cultivated a long tradition of producing more ritualistic pieces with extraordinarily high value. Among sought-after Japanese pottery in the market today: the Satsuma vase and other types of Satsuma pottery. To better understand these wares and their significance in the history of Japanese pottery, we’ll start at the beginning.
The Evolution of Japanese Pottery
While in ancient times, the most venerated work appears to us today to be the Haniwa, which were statue-like figures cast in water-based clay, more recent periods have focused on pieces for use in the tea ceremony, or chanoyu, which has been enshrined as a cornerstone of high society since the 11th century. In the medieval period, it was common for the highest rank of regional lord, the Daimyō class, to employ their own private pottery studio, with artists creating specially tailored pieces to awe and entertain their lord and guests with their command and refinement of the form.
A particularly innovative or amusing artist could be considered a great asset to an aristocrat, as the constitution of the tea set was itself a reflection on the aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, guiding principles for the ceremony designed to emphasize the austere, imperfect, and rough nature of existence.
The Emergence of Satsuma Pottery
It is in the context of this tradition that Satsuma ware, an oddly paradoxical category that can simultaneously refer to some of the most desirable — as well as some of the most reviled — Japanese ceramics ever made, emerged. Tracing these origins and subsequent evolution is essential to understanding how this near-legendary type of earthenware obtained this dual status, and how to identify different types of Satsuma pieces in the market today.
Who Made Satsuma Pottery?
The original artisans that produced Satsuma pottery were not, in fact, from the Satsuma Province. They weren’t even Japanese; they were Korean prisoners who were captured by the invading forces of Toyotomi Hideyosi, then the ruler of Japan, during his ill-fated invasion of the Korean peninsula in the late 16th century. In this invasion, Toyotomi sent representatives from all the Daimyō that served him, including a delegation from the Satsuma province, who, in 1597, conquered the Korean province of North Cholla.
In that time, the culture around the Tea Ceremony was already so significant, and the renown of the Korean potters so ubiquitous back in Japan, that the first action undertaken by the invading Satsuma army was to seize all the local potters in the region and forcibly relocate them back to Japan. That may seem to be a misplaced priority, but doing so was simple economics: before the war, a single, genuine Korean piece could fetch hundreds, if not thousands, of gold pieces in the Japanese market. From the perspective of the general serving his Daimyō, it would have been irresponsible not to capture the means to produce such wealth straight away.
These displaced Korean artisans eventually assimilated with their captors’ local culture, and for the next few centuries, throughout the Edo period (1603-1868), worked hard to reproduce the conditions needed to create their art. The local lords restricted the sale of the best Satsuma pottery, limiting the sale of white pieces to the aristocracy. Commoners, no matter how wealthy, were forced to buy only black wares.
Satsuma Pottery in the Market Today
The renown of the Satsuma pottery kilns spread far and wide throughout the country. While the Japanese Satsuma vase is one of the most popular objects in the field, any work from this period tends to be quite valuable today. While some workshops, like the Taizan or the Kinkozan, continued to produce works into the late 19th century, such works are exceedingly rare and very precious, generally found in museums or in Japanese personal collections.
Typically, later period works from these workshops have workshop signatures or marks, but pieces made before the Meiji Restoration (1868) are usually left unsigned. These pieces reflect the austerity of wabi-sabi, being thick-rimmed, minimally decorated, robust pieces, with a focus placed on form, in which the artist ideally disappears into the aesthetic. Some later pieces from the Edo period did incorporate illustrative elements, which would be adopted by the following period of production on a scale previously inconceivable.
Introducing Satsuma Pottery in the West
The production of Satsuma within Japan continued essentially undisturbed for around two and a half centuries, until another “invasion” of sorts would irrevocably alter the destiny of the craft. In 1852, United States President Millard Fillmore, seeking economic advantage for American business interests, ordered Naval Commodore Matthew Perry to set sail with a company of state-of-the-art warships from their home port in Norfolk, Virginia. Perry’s destination was to be the city of Edo (present day Tokyo), which had been the seat of the Japanese government, the Tokugawa Shogunate, since the fall of Toyotomi Hideyoshi following his war in Korea — back when the potters were captured.
The Tokugawa had heretofore cloistered the country off from the rest of the world, enforcing a policy called Sakoku, or “closed country,” which abolished all international commerce and travel, but Perry’s overwhelming military presence forced an impasse. The Shogunate signed a “Treaty of Peace and Amity,” which undid this tradition, and thus the country went from being an isolated system, only dealing in its own art, economy, literature, and technology, to being a player on the global stage. Word of Satsuma masterworks spread to the West, and Japanese ceramics and porcelain became sought-after luxuries throughout America and Europe.
Expanding the Market for Japanese Pottery
The savvy rulers of Satsuma (by this time the Shimazu clan), were quick to capitalize on the gigantic expansion of the market for Japanese porcelain. Factories were established, production ramped up, and pieces were submitted to various world’s fairs, gaining such significant exposure that all Japanese pottery for export from this period became known in the west as “Satsuma.”
The quality of pieces from this time ranges dramatically, but most Satsuma pottery that was made for export is generally considered of lesser quality, or even slightly offensive, today. Such pieces incorporate an abundance of “oriental” motifs, made to look “Japanese” to audiences unfamiliar with the culture. Hawkers would even concoct fantastic stories of provenance for the gullible 19th century Western audience, claiming that certain items been presented to the pope on a Japanese mission to Rome, centuries ago.
Motifs and Imagery
Since Japanese woodblock prints and books were seeing similar success in the West, Japanese pottery began reflecting the pictorial nature of those mediums, focusing most on genre illustrations or portraits on the surface, with less interest in the ceramic form itself. This industry became so large and influential that the samurai of the Satsuma Domain were able to leverage their reputation and economic position abroad to secure backing by the British Empire during their successful revolt against the Shogunate in 1868, which ended the centuries of Tokugawa rule.
Stamps and Signatures
Wares from this period through the mid-20th century differ from their predecessors in a multitude of ways, and since the term eventually came to encompass nearly all the output of Japanese kilns, the variety of work from this period can be staggering. Fortunately, there is one unifying element present in this period: stamps and signatures, a consequence of ramped up competition, coupled with uncertain provenance.
If the piece is not factory-produced, reading the mark will typically provide the name of a family workshop written in Japanese. Many will also include the “circled cross” crest of the Shimazu, attempting to associate the product with the original Satsuma kilns, but this is so ubiquitous that it can be an unreliable determiner of value.
Regardless of the foreign market, demand was still present for more traditional pieces within Japan itself, and artisans that catered to this more discerning audience tend today to be more valued than those catering to foreign tourists. For those who cannot read Japanese, resources can be found online to match markings to a known workshop, but the best way to determine a piece’s aesthetic value may be the simplest of all: brew a cup of tea, sit a moment in silence, and appreciate the roughness, minimalism, and intimacy of the form. In other words, view it as a Daimyō would, through the lens of wabi-sabi.
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