Export of Kutani

A General view

The export of Kutani wares has started around 1868, at the beginning of Meiji restoration. That was the period of opening of Japan on the outside world. Many entrepreneurs were trying to develop business by any means and export was certainly a good chance.

Of course export of Japanese ceramic had started much earlier. At first Chinese and Dutch merchants were buying mainly Imari ceramics in Japan for resale in Europe. We can also record that the East India company started to export Imari ceramics to Europe around 1700. But at that period Kutani production was only starting and probably that the style would not appeal at all to European customers who were interested mainly in colorful copy of China wares and for this Imari was quite successful.

The export of Japanese ceramics even though copying Chinese wares had a strong influence on European production and we can recognized this influence in Delph ceramics for example.

There are really two different types of Kutani, the one which was produced for the domestic market and which followed the basis of the Japanese taste and the other typically made for export which followed the demand of European customers and which was made on purpose.

Kutani wares produced before Meiji have not been exported and it is therefore very rare to find such pieces overseas, on the other hand export models are seldom found in Japan as they did not interest Japanese customers. But they are now cases where they have been re-imported by dealers who expect to make some profit due to their relative rarity in Japan. There is a market today for this type of wares as they represent one important part of the evolution of the Kutani industry and collectors are interested also in this aspect.

What are the main differences and what was then the taste of European customers at the beginning of 20th century. There are several points to consider colors, shape and motifs. Regarding colors and motifs, these wares were mainly produced to meet a demand of a porcelain known as China ware which was a copy of Chinese colorful enamel overglaze. Everything which was produced had to follow this principle.

The surface is generally completely covered with multicolor decorations, quite heavy, with often Chinese personages. Also gold is intensively used, although Japanese never consider gold as an advantage on the contrary, its use was in general limited.

As far as shape and more generally ceramic itself is concerned, it had to meet also European needs for flower vase, diner plate, coffee set etc.. for which no interest what so ever exists in Japan. In fact Japanese customers just ignored this production which was so different from what was made for the Japanese daily use. Some companies took this opportunity and devoted their entire production to such items where some other completely refuse to produce and kept their original goal.

It is clear for example regarding coffee set, one should understand that the usage of coffee cup was very limited in Japan at the beginning of this century and generally were made for export only.

Similarly at that time Japanese did not use flower vase of any shape alone or by pair, therefore they were made only to meet European requests, same for what we call diner plate which was not used at all in Japan. On the other hand the production of Tokkuri and Sakazuki, in other word bottles and sake cups is an important part of the domestic market, but has no chance of being exported as there is no demand at all for these items, the same goes for all the small dishes, cups and plates which are used only with traditional Japanese food.

In Europe customers are looking for matching sets, on the opposite in Japan it is common to use different colors, shapes etc. and Japanese do not like so much exactly identical pieces. There is no rules except for sake cup or small dishes set were a 5 pieces set is often found. Therefore this is also one other determining point when finding a matching set, a Japanese set goes always by 5 contrary to European model which always goes by set of 6 pieces.

Then we have a situation were judging the Japanese ceramic production and especially Kutani based on what is found in Europe is certainly wrong, and can be misleading. In fact there are two separate productions for two different worlds. For the connoisseur, as for the Japanese, the reel production of Kutani found only in Japan is pure, beautiful, simple without any comparison possible and is really representative of Japanese culture.

The export business

The beginning of Meiji is really the starting period of Kutani export production. The domestic market was not very bright and the change in political landscape authorized suddenly the opening to the world. Foreign companies quickly moved to Japan and two harbors saw their activities increasing tremendously, their were Kobe and Yokohama ports. Many foreign companies established offices in these cities with the aim of doing import/export business. Therefore at first producers from Kutani started to sale to these companies in these places and mainly in Kobe as it was closer to the Kutani production centers.

Then quickly, representatives from Kanazawa Prefecture kilns opened offices in these ports. Horino Seisaburo, Kita Gisuke and Mori Seibei from Daishoji then Kan Shichiro and Iwata Yobei from Komatsu established trading centers in Kobe. In 1866 Ennaka Magobei established in Osaka a trading company called Masugamegumi. In 1877 Watano Kichiji established a branch office in Kobe.

The best Kutani potters and painters were present at the International exhibition held in Paris in 1867. The world discovered suddenly the existence of Kutani and this has stimulated greatly the production.

The demand for export models was therefore very strong and many kilns tried to comply with export requests, on the other hand some businessmen just opened a kiln for this purpose. This is the case of Abe Suikai, an ex samurai, who opened in 1869 a nishiki kiln in is house in Kojimachi, a city close to Kanazawa. He succeeded very well and soon had 80 potters and painters employed only for export production. He produced mainly tea set, coffee set, diner set...and had to purchase white pottery even from Hizen and Seto to meet production request.

His business was so flourishing that he opened branch offices in Kobe and Nagasaki. But Abe was not a good financial manager and the company got quickly into financial problems and went bankrupt in 1880. His paint manager UchiumiYoshizo took over the business and established a new company. Abe died later in 1910.

On the other hand some painter tried to export original Kutani without adapting their style to meet European taste. This is the case for Matsumoto Sahei from Komatsu who started in 1868 to export copy of green Kutani.

We can find also Sano-gama who was quite a big kiln under the leadership of the famous Saida Isaburo who died just at the beginning of the export business. However until closure of the kiln in 1897 they succeeded to export quite well.

Also very typical from this period is Shimizu Bizan from Kanazawa who opened beginning of Meiji a shop to sale his own pottery. The timing was very good as well as his personal style which was well appreciated overseas. His multicolor technic, mixed with gold was then very popular and is quite representative of the style of Meiji and Taisho periods.

However although Kutani producers had opened representative offices in Kobe and Yokohama to follow the very high demand for export most of the export market was not managed by the Kutani producers. Most of the business was directly controlled by chinese marchands who were trading in Kobe and Yokohama directly with the local representatives of foreign companies.

In order to avoid this situation Kutani marketing managers tried to sale directly to foreign companies. The only solution was to go overseas to promote and sale by themselves their ceramics.

Then in 1876 Tsutsui Matashichi from Komatsu went to Shanghai, then in 1877 Ennaka Bunsuke went to Europe, England, Germany, Holland, Italy and finally to USA. His father Magobei even stayed in France.

Watano Kichiji who was the biggest Kutani merchant, asked Imamura Yurin who had knowledge of western economy after having studied overseas. Kichiji was one of the first to succeed in 1880 in doing direct export shipment to Europe and to sale localy in Paris. This is the reason why so many pieces marked Watano can be found in Europe and USA.

The first 10 years of Meiji period saw the production of export surging and 80 % of all production went overseas. This trend continued and reached up to 90 % of the production the following years. In 1887 Kutani was the number one in export volume compared to all other Japanese manufacturers such as Hizen, Seto, Kyoto...

But the demand was so high, that many companies were just concerned by mass production and quality of pieces start to decrease rapidly. In 1890 Japan encounters its first economy recession.Then the Sino-Japanese war in 1894-1895 with the invasion of Korea and later the Russian war in 1904-05 put a stop to the development of the business. As a result the export of Kutani fall down within few years to a small 10 % of the production. But in September 1923 Tokyo was destroyed by a terrible earthquake. Yokohama port as well as all Kutani in stock over there were destroyed. This inflicted a huge blow to the export business which almost stopped within 2 years. Many companies just closed down and the export market never recovered, even today it is a very small part of the total production, which is now mainly devoted to domestic market.

As a result of this severe stop of activities many potters and painters from Kutani area as well as from Yokohama and Kobe were without any job. We consider that 2 or 3000 persons left at this time to move to other pottery areas such as Kyoto, Nagoya, Hizen....

There is however a second period of export which we have to mention may be only for the sake of record because the quality of the production was so bad that it is hard to call this Kutani. But the fact is that after World war II some companies, even famous one, tried to export very cheap wares for which the entire design is stenciled, mainly Chinese personage of pale colors and poor design, such as coffee set, flower vase, pepper and salt pots. These type of ware can be found easily in fleas market in Europe, but due to their poor manufacturing technique the color do not last or get loose and the pieces are often damaged.