Japanese Satsuma and Kutani Porcelain

japanese satsuma porcelain
Nothing is ever easy when it comes to Japanese pottery or porcelain. Indeed, for novices and seasoned collectors alike, terms like "Kutani" and "Satsuma" can be a source of lament, debate and consternation.

What is Japanese Satsuma? For one, it is a former Japanese feudal domain in southern Kyushu noted for its role in Japan's modernization. In its prime, Satsuma played a major role in the Meiji Restoration and was one of the most powerful feudal Hans in Tokugawa Japan. Merriam-Webster Online (06/18/08), however, defines it as “any of several cultivated cold-tolerant mandarin trees that bear medium-sized largely seedless fruits with thin smooth skin” (and its fruits). Imagine casually mentioning to someone that you collect Satsuma and having them think, "hum, why oranges?"

Not that they would check it in the middle of a conversation with you (or would they?), this renowned online American dictionary currently makes no mention of Satsuma ware. Not to fret, the three volume 1981 Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, mentioned it. There, they define Satsuma ware as, “a hard fine-grained buff Japanese pottery first produced about the end of the 16th century, orig. decorated with monochrome glazes, and from the late 18th century finished with increasingly ornate overglaze enamels and gilding.”

If you think that is a mouthful, try this: Most seasoned collectors and dealers would agree that Satsuma porcelain (“satsuma-yaki” in Japanese) is a type of earthenware (technically somewhere in between pottery and porcelain) named after the Japanese feudal domain in which it was first developed (ironically, by Korean potters) that is primarily identified by its finely crackled transparent glaze, and that Satsuma ware may have little, no or elaborate decoration, yet is most often associated with a particular style of ornamentation executed in polychrome enamels and raised gold popular since it was introduced at the 1867 Paris Exhibition by the Shimazu daimyo (lord) of the Satsuma domain. This ornate style was painstakingly painted, typically in elaborate decoration depicting themes from Japanese culture, flora and fauna. Though often thought of out of context as a completely new style, its development was influenced by other styles and designers of the Meiji period [perhaps even Kutani Shoza (1816-1883)?] in response to competition from “Imari” porcelain and 19th century Anglo-Japanese interactions. Indeed, this particular style of Satsuma ware was specifically produced for the export market (c.f., Brighter than Gold - A Japanese Ceramic Tradition Formed by Foreign Aesthetics by Purple Tigress, published online August 11, 2005).

The 1867 style's long-term and widespread appeal coupled with the fact that most Westerns were introduced to that style and the ware at the same time (so the style and the ware "were" Satsuma ware) has resulted in linguistic development of the term "Satsuma." That is, the use of the word "Satsuma" has evolved from place, to products from the place (oranges and earthenware), to styles associated with products from the place (c.f., Irene Stitt's, Japanese Ceramics of the last 100 Years. Actually, come to think of it, prior to 1867, the ware might not have even been called Satsuma ware - need to look that up). Naturally, differing uses in different places by diverse people often results in debates, confusion and competing interests. For example, although many people seek the popular “1867 style” Satsuma ware, whereas some are only interested in Satsuma-yaki (let’s call these folks "traditionalist"), others are interested in "Satsuman" style items regardless of the type of ware upon which it is found (and these folks "laissez-fairest"). So what?

Well, for one thing since Satsuman style Kutani ware is frequently referred to simply as "Satsuma style" Kutani (c.f., Jan-Erik Nilsson's and Bouvier’s Kutani sites), a keyword search for “Satsuma” will include results that are not Satsuma-yaki. Therefore, traditionalists looking for Satsuma-yaki will have to wade through more results than they would if no one considered Satsuma a style, or if everyone called (and spelled) Satsuma-yaki "Satsumayaki" or "Satsumaware" (in other words, irritating and inconvenient). Laissez-faireists on the other hand find being able to use the word Satsuma to signify a particular style helpful and encourage traditionalist to simply add "-Kutani" to their searches. No doubt, there are folks in both camps that would prefer it if everyone would called the ware Satsumayaki or Satsumaware, yet accept that the natural evolution of language did not follow such a precise path, and it is too late to make significant changes, and that trying to ban use of "Satsuma" as a style would cause more problems than it would solve -- without the desired effect.

A bigger problem related to "Satsuma style" Japanese Kutani is that sadly, at times Kutani ware is accidentally or fraudulently misrepresented as Satsuma ware. Since Satsuma ware is typically worth more than Satsuma style Kutani, well, you know how that goes. All the same, before calling someone who misrepresents a particular ware a fraudster, consider that Satsumaware bearing a Kutani mark is not entirely uncommon, and it is not so hard to find Kutani in the very same shapes and styles as Satsuma ware!

What is Japanese Kutani? Good question. Well, for one, it is not a type of orange. Disappointingly, the term is not even in the 1981 international unabridged dictionary. Encyclopedia Britannica Online's “Kutani ware” article (retrieved June 18, 2008) introduces it as, “Japanese porcelain made in Kaga province (now in Ishikawa prefecture).” On his Gotheborg site (accessed June 18, 2008), Nilsson relates that the “word Kutani means Nine Valleys and is the name of an area and a village.” He elaborates that decorators trained in Kutani occasionally moved to other areas. Hence, ceramic ware (primarily porcelain, yet sometimes also pottery) that resembles styles associated with Kutani (some of which are similar to the 1867 Satsuma style) are now referred to as Kutani.

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