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Daishoji Imari – What is it? What isn’t it?

Published on : 14 January 2018

For the Kutani Newsletter’s first article, it is a daunting subject, as there is such a commingling of myth, opinion and facts. I have relied heavily on communications with Mr. Tim Roberts in Arizona, who has a strong interest in and knowledge on this subject, and another learned colleague here in Japan who I travelled with to Kutani several times. And of course Georges Bouvier, a good friend and noted expert on Kutani. Together, Georges and I travelled to Kutani several times, twice with the specific purpose of drinking the wonderful Ishikawa Prefecture’s sa’ke and to learn as much as we could on this subject. I must tell you that in 2013/14 I was quite skeptical of the term Daishoji Imari, believing it was a term used to enhance a commercial appeal, and that the vast majority of pieces attributed to a Kutani origin, were simply Imari pieces from the Arita area. That is no longer completely the case. It has become clear to me that styles reproducing, copying, or heavily influenced by Imari pieces were indeed made in the area referred to as Kutani. The challenge of where they were produced and who produced and decorated them remains partly obscure, but much has now been learned.

In the Edo period, the Kaga and Daishoji Clans were very supportive of the arts and crafts of their regions, financially supporting them as well. But in Meiji, this support was discontinued and the ceramic industry fell on hard times. Since there were an abundance of potters and painters, it was natural that they would have to turn their talents in a different direction, and since Imari nishiki-te was commercially popular and exportable, this became the direction. While I opine later in this article about the paucity of Meiji era Daishoji Imari, it is because I have not seen many convincing pieces, or I cannot tell the difference from post-war production pieces. But we do know that at the beginning of Meiji there are reference pieces made in Kutani that copie old Imari pieces and it was made by Tsukatani Sen. We know from records that Eiraku Wazen and his brother Takeuchi Ginshu were active and familiar with Imari porcelain, and, Asai Ichimo (one of my favorite painters) introduced brocade-te, so the chemistry to produce copies of Imari pieces was present.

In short order, Yamashiro Village made the blanks, and overglaze decoration was done in Daishoji town with merchants/wholesalers calling the shots. While it is recognized that from Meiji to Taisho that Kutani wares achieved great popularity, including what we refer to today as Daishoji Imari, we think the majority of pieces were exported and consisted of dinnerware, not display pieces. Maybe this is why we do not see many pieces here in Japan.

Two books are available with the specific topic of Daishoji. There may be more that I am not aware. Unfortunately, both are In Japanese. If a book can be judged by it cover, several comments seem in order. The first book, below, is a very small sized book. Photos are not good and back markings are not always shown.
In my opinion, not all the pieces that are shown on the cover match my description of Daishoji, nor the photo on the reverse. I say this because although the aode pieces shown may be ko-Kutani from the Edo period made in Arita, I do not classify them as being Daishoji Imari, a term coined much later. Inside, there are many, many pieces I would not recognize as Daishoji either. I wrote to the author asking for some clarification, but alas, did not receive any response. More information on these books in the Virtual library/books review.

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My criticism of the book is that it falls short of any rationale in attributing pieces as Daishoji Imari, lacks any scholarly arguments, does not list locations nor references. However, this may be too unkind, as I cannot read the Japanese text with any degree of accuracy. The second book is better, attributing a few known makers as producers of Daishoji Imari, with better pictures, and in the mostly typical patterns I discuss below - Chrysanthemum petalled moulded floral pieces, typically marked. I consider this book to be quite reliable.

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> I must also tell you that getting information has been exceedingly difficult and time consuming. There is almost a conspiracy of silence or resistance to discussing this subject among the many persons I met in my travels. Let me address this first. Compared with traditional and artistic Kutani that we are more familiar with, many opined that Daishoji Imari were simply goods of lesser value, were not really original and were produced for commercial purposes due to pattern popularity elsewhere, and they were seen as goods with little or no artistic innovation. Secondly, the production of these goods did not have historical roots in Kutani and did not evolve from father to son or teacher to apprentice. They just copied or reproduced what was popular and commercially attractive from another area. Artistically it was borrowed. And there were opinions that records were not kept as diligently as records for originally developed and traditional Kutani products. These consistent opinions, to me, are believable. I think, as opposed to knowing, that many traditionalists in Kutani were embarrassed that they had to turn to making unoriginal products, copying and reproducing the works of others to maintain financial stability after WWII. While certainly there must have been some Daishoji Imari pieces created in Kutani before this term was coined, there is little documentary evidence of many we can confidently believe are pre WWII production, and I think it may have been sporadic and limited. However, we see pieces with spur marks and believe these could well be Meiji production, but almost no way to differentiate between them. It is very difficult to find a pair to compare side by side. While Daishoji style Kutani was clearly made in Meiji and Taisho, the pieces are rare compared to the number of pieces seen that do not have spur marks. Spur marks alone, are not a confirming attribute. Adding to this, there are opinions in Kutani that merchants cared more about commercial appeal and business and less about tradition. Kiln operators and overglaze decorators I spoke to held them in lesser esteem. A necessary evil if their goods needed a distribution outlet. Furthermore we heard that following WWII, many Kutani artisans went out of business and blank manufacturers sold finished products in order to survive and some surmise that Inoue Shoten had contracts to provide souvenir products to the occupation forces and area hot spring visitors, further tarnishing the image of Daishoji Imari. This cannot be confirmed as Inoue Shoten is tight lipped and has not cooperated with any outside inquiries to our collective knowledge since it closed. Bitoen, on the other hand stopped making Daishoji pieces by 1985 but was most cooperative when Georges and I visited. It seems that many producers worked in isolation, not fully knowing what others were doing. I think that for Shotens (merchants), they were unaware of exactly who the decorators were that produced the overglaze designs, just outsourcing to design studios. While many of these pieces are of high quality, none of the painters apparently achieved any fame. Georges has identified a few, but very few and information about them is minimal. And if the information is accurate regarding sales to local tourists and to occupation forces following WWII, this may account for the paucity of tomobako. Most Kutani sets destined for export, directly or indirectly were put in cardboard boxes. Only rare and significant pieces warranted tomobako.

> The most recognizable styles that typify Daishoji Imari are the moulded petal border pieces that have a fairly consistent pattern of brocade/chrysanthemum designs, and of course the namban pieces, usually depicting blackships and foreign looking persons. These were, of course, popular products of Imari in the Meiji era and even prior to that, and are still popular today. While there are other variations, I will try to limit my observation comments primarily to these two types are they appear to be the most widely copied of the Daishoji Imari pieces we see today for sale on auction sites. But as the two books listed (sometimes available on the Internet) contain a wide variety of patterns other than the moulded chrysanthemum/brocade pieces, we should keep this in mind. My friend Tim is correct that we can find most of the patterns in the two books periodically on auction sties, so we must not ignore them. Here is one of the most popular Daishoji designs, the one we see the most of, with some degree of variation: The six character ‘precious’ mark reads, in Chinese – “qi yu hao ding zhi zhen”. Note the distinctive roundels on the reverse – distinctive, and with a word of caution, likely to be an Inoue Shoten, piece since we see this regularly on pieces attributed to them.

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Other design examples:

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A large Daishoji Imari dish

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Part of my collection, below:

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And examples of running fuku (uzufuku) marked pieces, purported to be Daishoji Imari:

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Also examples with Kutani marking

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Namban pieces featuring foreign ‘barbarians’ were and remain very popular.
Often referred to as Black Ship pieces. Normally three ships are shown, but sometimes only one and first appeared in the 18th century said to be modeled on Dutch ships that traded with Japan in the 17th century. At that time, these pieces were not exported, but were popular domestically as “treasure ships” similar to the Japanese Yakatabuni. Those attributed as Daishoji Imari are very precisely drawn with brilliant enamels in red, black, green, purple and brocade with finely executed drawing skills and fine details. Often with large kotobuki mark on reverse, but many unmarked. These are depicted in the two books shown as well.

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> We should start where the pieces are first created - as blanks. According to my trusted and learned Tokyo colleague, the blanks for early Daishoji Imari pieces were made at four main kilns in Enuma in the Meiji period - Shimada Juraku Kiln, Kitade Kiln, Chokushi Kiln, and Teramae Kiln. I have heard that the Juraku Kiln’s multi-chamber climbing furnace started this by trial and error until a body closely resembling an Imari body was achieved. These blanks were termed imarishita. This imarishita body formula spread to other locations in the area, including Komatsu City, which supplies these blanks even today. The most common sized for the molded pieces are 9, 15, and 21 centimeters in diameter. It was easy to mass-produce these. Georges and I visited there. It is believed that Inoue Shoten was a merchant that did not operate a kiln and outsourced overglaze decoration on blanks obtained from one or more of these kilns. Whereas Teramae kiln, now known as Bitoen, produced blanks and outsourced decoration. We do not know if Inoue Shoten of Daishoji Town obtained blanks from Bitoen in Yamashiro Onsen, but we do not think so as they were competitors. There remains controversy and differing opinions about where the clay was sourced for Daishoji Imari. Much earlier, when Eiraki Wazen stayed at the old Kutani kiln (Kutani Honyo) and the Matsuyama Kiln for six years, he used locally sourced stone. Then he changed to Araya stone from Yamanaka Village. Then later to Hanasaka stone from Komatsu in order to get the whiteness he preferred and that became the standard for blank making in Kutani. According to my contacts, there was much trial and error, and inconsistency in how the various stones were crushed and mixed to get the desired clay for blanks. While Amakusa stones were undoubtedly used for some Daishoji pieces, records are poor or not existing and only word of mouth confirms this. The consensus is that Amakusa stone was mixed with Izumiyama stone from Arita and others to get blanks for Kakiemon, but for Dashoji Imari (Imarishita) pieces, the main stone was Hanasaka. How do we tell the difference between Imari from Arita and Daishoji Imari? I think basically that we cannot tell the difference based on appearance after glazed and fired. There is simply too much variation in the clay mixture to differentiate. At least it is my opinion.

> Next, what about the beveled foot rim characteristic attributed to Daishoji imari? Is it a defining characteristic? Sellers will tell us that it is, quickly turning over a plate to point it out. The current Shimada generation of Juraku Kiln said that this style was a characteristic of kilns in Enuma as well as well as Terai and was not exclusive to Daishoji Imari pieces. My colleague here said that it was unlikely that Inoue Shoten, which did not operate a kiln, would specify beveled foot rims, but simply contracted with a kiln that made them. Probably Komatsu? He felt this is a potter’s preference or a kiln style. Mr. Sakuma of the Kutani Museum in Nomi City was a teacher of potters and seconded the opinion that it is simply a potter’s style. Consensus is that while the preponderance of purported Daishoji Imari pieces have beveled foot rims, some do not and it cannot be an absolute defining characteristic, only highly suggestive. He further opined that in Arita as well as Kutani the designs, inscriptions and shapes copied pieces made in China, so the beveled foot rim might be copied as well from a Chinese piece in some cases, but in general, the foot rims (kodai) on Imari pieces from Arita are rounded compared to the sharpness of the shaved inside-out angle on Daishoji Imari. I do not know how common unglazed beveled foot rims are on Chinese pieces, but I believe they are uncommon. We met an Arita potter who said that a potter forming pieces from a mold might not sharply bevel the foot rim, which would save time and not waste clay. But on a wheel, it was quick and could be done easily. Interesting thoughts for sure. There is a learned opinion that the beveled foot rims are considerably higher/taller than seen on other Kutani and on Imari pieces.

> Next let us look at underglaze sometsuke and in particular the mark. Some are not marked, but most are with either a six character Chinese reign mark or a four character Chenghua mark in Chinese characters. Copied from Chinese pieces, but some have stroke or stroke order mistakes, but there is consistency. Georges and I have seen other marks including generic Kutani and in the case of a Bitoen piece, an Eisho marked piece representing the Bitoen owner’s name. A running fuku mark and kakufuku are rarely present, but there are examples. But not once have we seen the marks contain the characters for Daishoji nor have we ever seen a matching tomobako with those characters. However we are aware of at least one piece that has the mark of Inoue Shoten hidden(?) in the dragon scale patterns on the external side. Wish we could find more of these. Inoue Shoten was known to use a special karakusa design and a fly whisk and leaf motif. We don’t know if this was exclusive to Inoue Shoten but it makes pieces attributed to them somewhat distinctive. It could be part of a quality control measure to ensure consistency of outsourced painters.

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Inoue Togen Mark on a Daishoji bowl. It is the only one I have seen.

Similarly, we see no kiln names, geographic inscriptions nor decorator’s names. Those marked with the large kotobuki character on the reverse are likely of Arita origin in my opinion but appear as Daishoji Imari in the second book so it is also likely. Most are on namban pieces. Kotobuki sometimes appears in the central roundel and in paper patterns. The Chinese character for double happiness is seen in paper drawn patterns also, but I have not seen actual pieces….yet. On some working drawings I have seen, Kutani appears, but I have not seen actual pieces having that mark.

And, I do not recall ever seeing an impressed or incised marks on a piece matching a Daishoji style. I find that somewhat odd, however, if these pieces were seen as secondary or lesser pieces made only because of hard financial circumstances, I can understand the reluctance to identify them as Kutani made pieces out of a lack of pride.

> Then there is the underglaze decoration to assess. While variations exist, there is somewhat consistency, probably caused by paper designs being distributed to the outsourced decorators from the merchants or to in-house decorators when kilns employed them. Simplified karakusa is the most common pattern. As to overglaze painting, the vast majority we have seen are decorated on sometsuke painted and marked underglaze blanks with post 1870 Wagner chemical cobalt which is not particularly helpful in distinguishing them from Imari pieces of the same timeframe. We have seen pieces with light cobalt underglaze and with spur marks, suggesting pre Meiji or early Meiji production. Those thought to originate post WWII have modern chemical and darker cobalt underglaze and marks. Sets are very consistent in design. Most likely from one painter or a team of painters working together to produce an almost identical pattern on an order from a merchant. The issue of a lack of shard evidence in the area from Kanazawa to Daishoji itself was initially a concern for Georges and myself as we expected that if production was huge in the postwar period, we would expect to see shard evidence somewhere. In talking with knowledgeable persons, we were told that by 1950 quality control and use of temperature reliable kilns, mostly electric, eliminated to a degree the rejects associated with earlier wood fired kilns. I am/was not so convinced. But Ms. Teramae, current owner of Bitoen, said that if some pieces had cracks or were broken in the firing process, they were repaired and used locally or by her staff as good porcelain was precious following WWII. In other words, not discarded. When this information is added to the fact that outsourcing of overglaze decoration was common and very widespread, perhaps no large shard dumps exist, at least none discovered on a scale to estimate production volumes. Perhaps no probable sites have been excavated. According to my sources, overglazing firing was mainly done in Daishoji Town in Enuma county. In 1910, there were twenty-six kilns firing overglaze decorated pieces, thirty in 1911 but by 1916, only twenty-two of the thirty kilns were still active. There were no underglaze firing kilns in Daishoji Town. Ten underglaze kilns were in the general geographic area of Chokushi, Yamashiro and Yamanaka villages. The lack of documentation/evidence of production is dismaying. It might have to do with primarily cash transactions and not wanting a paper trail for the tax authorities, but that is speculative at best. No one could tell us how much was produced. Only "many" in some cases.

So…. What is the conclusion? Well, not so simple. First, it has never been in doubt that potters/decorators copied/reproduced/used Imari and Chinese designs in Kutani. Probably, every ceramic/porcelain center did this to some degree. It was popular. Prior to WWII, during the Meiji and Taisho eras it is uncertain whether the practice of copying or reproducing was widespread compared to the unique and traditional production of Kutani wares. Today, the use of the term ko-Kutani implies an origin in Arita, not in Kutani, and is pretty much accepted except for diehards. The lack of shard evidence in Kutani but discovered in Arita is the reason for this revisionist history. As mentioned above, the pieces which are so typical in defining Daishoji style from pre WWII are comparatively rare compared to post WWII….if we can clearly discern the difference. Those thought to be from Meiji usually have spur marks, have a more pitted and irregular surface, some pooling particulate in the enamels and a more rough beveled foot rim. I have noted a slight greenish tinge as the glaze inside the foot rim where it rolls up the foot rim on what I believe to be older pieces, but it is not a consistent observation. But these characteristics, even together, are not a litmus test for attribution. In general, these Daishoji pieces are relative small, compared to large chargers and bowls produced in Meiji, so even the lack of a spur mark is not conclusive to move it into a later era.
Much has been said about beveled foot rims. It seems to me that on an otherwise Daishoji appearing piece, the presence of a beveled foot rim is strongly influential. The overwhelming majority of pieces I have held in hand, purported to be Daishoji, have unglazed beveled foot rims, and as mentioned earlier, they seem higher/taller than seen on other Kutani and Imari pieces.

Post WWII pieces are more convincing. The reason is that we have anecdotal evidence of production in Kutani on a rather large (but how large?) scale. Madame Teramae of Bitoen is one on the most believable because during her long tenure at Bitoen, her kiln produced “very many” of the styles we associate with Daishoji. And Georges and I had dinner at her home on two occasions recently, served on pieces produced by Bitoen and in the very style we associate with Daishoji. One piece marked Ku Tani on the reverse, identical to some pieces seen in the second book indicated. Bitoen stopped producing Daishoji style pieces in 1985, no longer fires blanks and their kilns are long cold. Madame Teramae paints pieces and her shop is open for business, but virtually all pieces are contemporary. While I consider her to be a friend, and she was at my home for lunch last year, I sense she tires of my interest in Daishoji Imari. Those in Kutani we spoke of considered Daishoji Imari to be mass produced because of retained popularity post WWII at a time when Japan was still recovering from the after effects of war, and the Kutani porcelain industry needed a financial boost it could not achieve from traditional wares. Because of that, it seems not to have risen to the esteem that traditional Kutani has achieved. In Kutani Village, in Nomi City, where thousand of Kutani porcelain pieces are for sale, there are no Daishoji examples to be found (well…I saw just one), and in the Nomi Kutani Museum, there are none as well. Those who painted them are obscure, considered just rote copiers. A shame, as so many are really well done, albeit, not original.

If we had access to Inoue Shoten in Daishoji City, some of the mystery surrounding this subject might be revealed. With Bitoen and some other producers known to produce the majority of pieces from the 1950s, we perhaps could get answers from this major producer. Georges and I are convinced that the Inoue family retains the paper patterns used to design these and we think that they clearly made namban pieces as well. We heard this anecdotally, but cannot confirm this. Of interest is that twelve shoten were operating in Daishoji Town in 1931, but after the war, only Inoue Shoten continued to operate. Decorators/painters needed to live close to the shotens for fast responses to orders.

My opinion is that if one can match a pattern/design in the second book, perhaps not perfectly, if it is well decorated and it is close to the relative size and shape, with the six character spurious Chinese reign marking (or the Chenghua mark), no spur mark(s) and it has a fairly thin width unglazed beveled foot rim, there is a very high probability the piece was made in Kutani by one of the major producers in the 1950s. If Inoue Shoten had a contract for producing for the military stores operated by the occupation forces, I would expect that many of these pieces ended up in the USA and when handed down, may have been described as Imari. We don’t know how they were sold, maybe just with ‘Made in Japan’ stickers? Or…. “Made in Occupied Japan – that would be a good one to find, wouldn’t it? Speculative, of course. Tourist areas like Tokyo and Yokohama probably sold them as well, I would think.

Some may be wondering if a conclusion is actually forthcoming. Yes.
Daishoji Imari, if we describe it as a relatively narrow set of patterns/designs based on/copied from previous Imari patterns and designs and made in Kutani, or more widely in the Kaga area, reproducing the six character Chinese marking, Chenghua marking or large kotobuki character and possessing an unglazed, sharply inside-our beveled foot rim …….. exists. Through careful examination and handling a myriad of these pieces one can develop a high degree of confidence as to origin, and discern them from pieces made in Arita/Imari concurrently or earlier. Some Kutani pieces resembling Daishoji, such as Eiraku marked pieces can be confused with these. Pieces made in Kutani prior to WWII are more difficult to attribute and require a more concentrated effort to render an opinion on a case-by-case basis, and even then, with a degree of uncertainty.

So a How To Tell Summary:

1. On Daishoji Imari, the blue is more blurred and shows less sharpness that on Arita Imari. Said to make the overglaze decoration get more attention.
2. More carefully glazed than Genroku Imari – less stippling, glaze misses, bubbling and kiln particulate.
3. A more careful drawing, specially in red,
4. Steeply inside-out beveled foot rims that appear taller/higher than Arita Imari pieces of the same size,
5. Ake-e (red) is more opaque, not glossy and is darker, almost blood red.
6. Inscriptions on old Imari, on the reverse, copied masterpieces from the Qing Dynasty, sometimes with mistakes. But after Meiji, Daishoji Imari Chinese characters were written more correctly and more carefully.
7. If a tomobako accompanies the piece, it is very important. Some Daishoji Imari pieces have tomobako. It can be confidently attributed if matched to the contents. My colleague has seen a Daishoji Imari tomobako inscribed by Nakamura Shuto the 1st, Suda Seika the 1st and Matsumoto Kinjiro. I have never seen any.

This is not conclusive, but shows how diligent one must be in evaluating these pieces.

I want to thank Tim Roberts for his diligent and learned input, and to my travelling companion Georges Bouvier. Fortunately, we traveled with our spouses, who are Japanese, and they were instrumental in making sure our pointed inquiries were always polite, and our frustrations hidden. I have not listed the name of my good friend and colleague who is from Tokyo, but travels very frequently to Kutani and is a Kutani volunteer while there. He knows all the museum curators and Kutani promoters. I have gone to Kutani with him several times. He is a very private person, and will publish an extended piece on Daishoji Imari, perhaps next year. Georges and I must take credit for inspiring him on this mystery and at times having bummed him out with our many inquiries. Comments are solicited to this site and corrections are always welcome. All errors are mine. I continue to learn

John Wocher
Kamogawa City,