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Reference »  Antiques

Yaki is a Japanese word used to describe porcelain, pottery and earthenware. Producing all of them has been a vital and successful art form in Japan, even though earthenware has been widely produced on the archipelago from the Jomon period (from 10,000 to 300 B.C.)- Japanese neolith.

The real boom started in 17th century. At the dawn of the Edo period, in 1598, the army of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536- 1598) invaded Korea. During a short occupation period (1592-1598) the Japanese literally kidnapped a few families specializing in traditional arts, such as pottery making: art they again learned from the Chinese. Brought over to Kyushu, they started production on Japanese soil, founding a basis of the Japanese porcelain production. The location proved to be perfect, as local lands were rich in kaolin clays. Porcelain is baked in higher temperatures than pottery, and kilns built by the Korean potters allowed achieving phenomenal effects. In later years, Japanese artisans became artistically independent, but the continental influences have always been present, more or less obviously.

In late 16th century the tea ceremony culture gained popularity on Japan, being one of the factors propelling the porcelain production. The Japanese exported their products worldwide, continuing the trade even during the isolation of the Edo period (1603-1868). The Dutch East India Company was the major consumer of Japanese pottery, stimulating development of that art craft; their first big order was placed at Arita in 1656. 17th century was the time of a great prosperity in Europe, an époque called baroque by latter generations. People came into possession of great fortunes and a demand for things unusual, oriental and foreign was tremendous. Factories in Delft in the Netherlands, Meissen, Vincennes and finally Worchester in 19th century were established to produce copies of Japanese pieces trying to meet the immense need for oriental style porcelain in Europe.


The centre of the Japanese porcelain production is based on the southern Kyūshū Island, due to kaolin rich clay in that area. It developed in Arita city in Hizen province, and gained its name from the city. Imari, another term related to Japanese porcelain is a name of a nearby port, from which the ceramics produced for export were shipped to foreign countries. In result, the name Imari came to function as a synonym for Japanese porcelain.

Kaolin clay, one of the key ingredients in porcelain production was found in Arita in 1616, with the help of Korean craftsmen who were brought over to Japan after the invasion of Korea. Soon after, they built an advanced type of continuous step-chamber kiln and started production of the first pieces. Arita kilns introduced Korean style overglazing technique and refined Chinese designs. Chinese porcelain production was held by the political chaos: new Qing dynasty government stopped international trade in 1656-1684. It is then, that the Japanese Arita kilns stepped up to fill the gap in the market and porcelain was widely exported to Europe through the Dutch East India Company. Imari porcelain was thus specifically designed for the European taste. Pieces on display are the oldest examples of Imari ware, produced for the Dutch East India Company. Forms are inspired by western ware, the initials are of the Latin alphabet; decoration however is clearly orientalizing in design as well as the usage of enamel colours. This type of porcelain had an immense impact on European porcelain production. It inspired Meissen, and the artistic bond created in this manner is still very much alive today in the field of porcelain production.



Kakiemon porcelain is also a product of Arita area. It took its name from its founder, Kakiemon I (ca. 1596-1666) of the Sakaida family. Kakiemon's technology and style originated in China and was based on enamel overglaze decoration in several colours: red, light blue, yellow, purple. The Duch East India Company was extensively exported Kakiemon wares to Europe. It was especially sought for in Germany, and soon Meissen workshops started to copy Kakiemon designs. 

Satsuma ware

The history of Satsuma earthenware begins in 17th century in Satsuma province. First pieces fired by Korean potters, known as Ko-Satsuma- Old Satsuma, covered with a thick dark glaze and considered very rare. They have little in common with the typical Meiji export products. From early Meiji period till late 1920's Satsuma ware was produced in big quantities, destined for European and American export markets. Typical Meiji Satsuma is a creamy glazed earthenware, covered with a miniature decoration of motifs such as women, samurais, Japanese gods or immortals, flowers, animals or landscapes. Those images were all hand painted in enamel, glazed, gilded, and finally fired in the kiln.

Satsuma brooches and buttons

Pottery making in Japan has a long tradition, but since the Japanese wore no buttons, their production is a very recent development. It was not until the trade with the West was established and Japan got to enter the Western market. The most common shape is circular, but others like heart, butterfly or flower do exist. Like other Satsuma products, some buttons or brooches bare a small circle surrounding a cross, the mon of the Shimazu family (feudal lords controlling Satsuma domain), sometimes a signature of their decorator. The subject matter of the decorations is limited to four basic groups: botanical, people, generic scenes and animals.


Kutani ware

The history of Kutani ware goes back to the beginning of Edo period. Local feudal clan leader, Maeda Toshiharu, built a first kilns and brought potters from Hizen, present-day Saga Prefecture. The pottery made during the first period (1655 - 1730) was later given the name of Kokutani, and it is highly valued. In the second half of the 19th century master Shoza Kutani (1816-83) established a new production of Kutani ware, which proved to be very popular in the West. He gave the basis of the typical Meiji Kutani style: brick red colours with gild, and decoration themes including birds and flowers, landscape motifs and geometrical fabric patterns.


Bankō Earthenware

This interesting type of stoneware has developed in the province of Ise. It had been produced since the half of 19th century for overseas markets. Typical Bankō products are teapots of characteristic designs and peculiar decoration. Some of them are fully or partially glazed with abundance of colours, when some wear no glazing at all. At times the designs include sculpture-like reliefs in very inventive shapes: realistic birds and animals are typical ‘trademark’, as well as the ‘mask tea pots’, decorated with theatre masks on each side, including the lid.


Japanese Lacquer Ware

Japanese lacquer, urushi comes from the sap of Rhus verniciflua tree. It was used to preserve objects and later for decoration. Evidences of its usage in Japan were excavated and found to be of Jōmon period (approximately 2500-1000 BC.). During the Edo period lacquer ware was very much in demand: it was first used to decorate residences of daymyōfeudal lords and shoguns, later also middle class’ dwellings. In the 18th century experiments led to the development of coloured lacquers.
The production of lacquer is a complicated process. After removing the sap from the tree it is aged for three to five years, and then processed into a number of lacquer types with different properties. The processed lacquer is almost transparent, but gains its colours depending on the pigments added. Urushi is applied in numerous layers on a dry and polished surface of wood, sometimes leather, paper, or basketry. The best condition for hardening of lacer resin is high humidity and temperature. Each layer has to be completely dry and then polished before the process can be repeated with the next layer. Once the lacquer is given its final transparent coating it is waterproof, resistant to salt, alcohol and even alkali and acid. It also insulates heat and electricity. Urushi contains urushiol, a poisonous substance to touch until it is dry, which makes the lacquer ware occupation hazardous and can only be practiced by skilled artisans. The complexity of the process to make lacquer involves a team of specialists and cannot be completed by a signal individual.
To diversify the artistic effects of plain red and black lacquers, inlay of ivory, seashells or similar materials are used along with other techniques. Old Chinese methods cultivated and perfected by the Japanese included:

roiro        black lacquer, polished to obtain a deep gloss

aogai       “blue and green shell”, pieces of shell inlayed into a usually black background

fundame   similar to makie and nashiji. In this case the powder is too fine to be polished; the effect is a smooth matt surface

raden        inlaid of large thick pieces of opalescent pearl-shell

heidatsu    silver and gold sheet inlay

makie       “sprinkled illustrations”, the designs are created with gold powder, sprinkled out on to wet lacquer, sinking to the bottom of the wet coating. As the urushi dries, it is polished down slightly to bring out the pattern. The process is repeated a few times

nashiji       a “speckled pear skin” effect using metallic dust. Process is similar to hiramaki

hiramakie  “flat sprinkled picture” made by using metal or coloured powder

takamakie  building up layers of lacquer in high relief by using clay or charcoal


Collective term describing all types of containers and pouches that could be suspended from one’s belt often accompanied by ojime (cord fastener) and netsuke (toggle):
Small container with a few compartments combined by a silk string running in channels on both sides. Hung by the sash, kept in place by netsuke and protected from opening by ojime bead from the top, inrō had both practical, as well as esthetical value. Japanese traditional clothes, kimono, has no pockets, and inrō were made as a substitute and later came to be an extremely luxurious and extravagantly decorated gadget. Initially worn by men it became part of female fashion later on. Inrō as we know it today developed around 1600 became popular and was used not only among samurais, but townspeople as well.
 Inrō literally means seal case, but it was mainly used to carry small objects, especially medicines as well as hanko: the personal seal.
 Typical inrō is rectangular in shape, flattened from two faces, contains three to four sections called dan. It cannot be used on its own and together with netsuke, ojime and the string create a set of everyday use object which finally gained a status of independent works of art. 
 Inrōs were largely made of wood, covered and decorated with lacquer, material known for its preservative qualities: it creates a perfect protection for items such as medicine in hot and humid Japanese climate. The basic materials for production of inrō are wood and leather; however, there are cases of usage of ivory, oxide, paper, stripes of wood or cloth, ceramics, or combinations of the above.
 Decoration might involve not only various types of lacquer work; inlayed ivory, mother of pearl or coral are also quite common. Originally, the subjects of inrō designs were Ukiyo-e: Japanese woodblock printings and paintings, although sources of inspirations and designs are countless. The items of everyday use are square, round, or polygon in shape, the more unusual inrōs take shapes of animals.


 Counterweight for any type of sagemono, to which it is connected by a string running under the sash. It protects the item suspended below the belt from sliding out. Normally no bigger than a chestnut, it can be recognized as a netsuke by its basic features:

·         Two holes, through which a string could run,

·         Carving is executed from all sides allowing the item to be enjoyed from all angles,

·         Smooth surface, in order not to puncture or damage both kimono or the sash.

Although small it could bear quite a lot of meaning. It is said that every netsuke has a story. It can complete the decoration on the inrō it holds, but those two items do not have to be a set, thus a connection is not a rule.

            The range of subjects and designs is as wide as that of materials used to produce netsuke. It could be ivory, metal, bone, antler wood and the like.

            There are few types of netsuke, mostly depending on their shape:

·         Sashi netsuke from sasu- stab, these are longitudinal in shape;

·         Manju netsuke resembles manju sweets: round and flattened in a disc shape;

·         Kagamibuta netsuke (鏡蓋根付) "mirror lid netsuke" - a type of netsuke similar to manju in shape, consisting of a shallow bowl (usually made of ivory) covered with a metal lid, decorated with various metallurgical techniques.

·         Okimono netsuke could as well serve as small decorative objects: okimono. The important thing is that not every netsuke is an okimono, and not every okimono is a netsuke.

Leather tobacco wallet closed by a decorative metal closure.

Pipe (kiseru) container. Most popular ones were made of lacquered wood, but those made of bone, bamboo or leather are not a rarity. Most often connected with tonkotsu (tobacco container)

Container exclusively for tobacco and is often attached to a kiserutsuzu (pipe holder). Tonkotsu would usually be made of raw material, and were generally more accessible.
Japanese clocks
The Japanese system of timekeeping was substantially different to the Western model, especially in the number of hours whereby special attention is given to the greater amount of light during the summer, allowing for a prolongation of the working day. The Western concept of time was as confusing to the Japanese as their notion of the ‘flexible’ day is to us. For many years, these two systems existed side-by-side. It was not until 1873, when the government issued a decree abandoning lunar calendar and the old method of timekeeping, that Japan adopted the European system.
The first clocks in Japan were Western imports. It is believed that the first European clock was brought to Japan in 1551 by a Jesuit priest, Francis Xavier (1506-52), as a present to the governor of Yamaguchi in Suwa. As a result, Japanese adapted Western technology to their traditional ways of timekeeping. However, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines still used incense-operated clocks.
Early examples of western-style clocks produced in Japan date back to the early 17th century. The so-called “daimyō clocks”, which only wealthy feudal lords could afford, were produced in Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki and Tokyo. The Japanese contribution to the technological innovations of the western design was the lacquering of the delicate iron parts: a painstaking process which allowed the Japan-produced clocks to survive often in better condition than western ones from the same period.

They were extremely rare and costly items. One such clock is estimated to have been worth 20 years’ wages of an average citizen.  One daimyo clock was taken care of by a clock master who was specially appointed to the household. After the adoption of Gregorian calendar many of the traditional clocks were made redundant. Most of the examples, which survive today, are those which were exported by foreigners.