A photographic introduction to items from the collection

Collection of ceramic ware exported to Japan
(Masatoshi Ono)

The medieval period in Japan can also be called the period of commodities and cities. Commodities came and went on a scale that encompassed East Asia and their trade saw the circulation of large quantities of Chinese currency. The excavation of archaeological sites in Japan has unearthed ceramic wares imported from China at not only sites where cities once prospered, but also at the sites of former villages in all parts of the Japanese archipelago, thus attesting to the widespread use of these imported items. These pieces of Chinese ceramic ware are not special items, as they are mainly bowls and dishes that were used on a daily basis. The photographs shown here are some examples of this ceramic ware, which include blue and white porcelain and white glazed porcelain.

An examination of the quantities and combinations of ceramic ware excavated from sites reveals several distinct periods in their consumption. In the latter part of the 15th century in particular when blue and white porcelain was first used, urban centers such as the castle towns and ports located throughout Japan became a major force, heralding the beginning of a period of mass consumption. By looking at wares put to everyday use such as bowls and dishes we find that it was more common for these imported items to be used for everyday purposes than Seto ware and other types of ceramic ware made in Japan. We also find that these imported items were used as prototypes for pieces of Seto ware. The blue and white dish shown in the photo and those estimated to be of a similar standard cost 35 mon in the capital in 1576, while a baking pan cost three or five mon at around that time. This kind of dish appears to have been exceptionally inexpensive when compared to the prices of other items, such as 35 mon for a sickle and 50 mon for a knife. At that time a carpenter earned 100 mon for a day's work. That is to say, the quantities distributed and quality of ceramic ware from China as well as their inexpensive prices all helped to drive consumption.

Figure 1: White glazed porcelain bowl (late 15th century - 16th century) Figure 2: Celadon bowl with lotus petal motif (late 15th century - 16th century)
Figure 3: White glazed porcelain dishes (late 15th century - 16th century)
Figure 4: Blue and white bowl with Pegasus motif (mid 16th century) Figure 5: Blue and white bowl with banana leaf motif (late 15th century - 16th century)

There also existed Chinese ceramic ware that was particularly expensive. These items included tenmoku bowls, celadon incense burners, vases, sake jars, platters, and bluish white meiping vases. They were used in tea ceremonies, for flower arranging and for burning incense, as well as for ornamental purposes. They were also used in banquets. For example, a tenmoku bowl with stand made in China purchased by the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto in 1492 one week before it hosted Hosokawa Masamoto cost as much as 8,000 mon. Similarly, while the market price for an ordinary iron pot was 100 mon, a tea ceremony kettle cost 2,000 mon in 1582, making it as much as 20 times more expensive than an ordinary pot.

This type of high-grade item has been found when excavating the sites of former castles, palaces and large temples. Some of these sites are notable for having had buildings such as teahouses or banquet halls used for entertaining guests. One might say that these items served as status symbols for their owners whose social rank necessitated that they take part in rituals and banquets. It was not uncommon for these items to be regarded as antiques during the Kamakura period.

So where did Japanese of the day buy these pieces of ceramic ware?

Figure 6: Shop along an urban street selling Chinese ceramic ware ("Screen Depicting Rakuchu and Rakugai (Kyoto)") (16th century)
Figure 7: Blue and white dishes (late 15th century - 16th century)
Figure 8: Blue and white dish with fish and seaweed motif (late 15th century - 16th century) Figure 9: Blue and white dish with design of a lion playing with ornate ball (late 15th century - 16th century)

The Tamon-in Diaries kept over a long period of time for the Tamon-in that was part of Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara are known for their details on the purchase of goods. Hirotsugu Fujita's study of purchases made by Tamon-in over a thirty year period from 1478 through 1567 reveals some interesting findings*. Items were purchased from a wide area that encompassed the cities of Kyoto, Sakai and Osaka and markets in places further afield such as Koriyama, Tsutsui and Imai. His study also shows that people bought items that represented the particular features of a particular area. Besides Nara, high-grade items and custom-made items were bought in Kyoto. Items bought in Sakai included mainly imported items such as honey, sugar and Chinese medicines, while timber and salt were purchased in Osaka. Unfortunately, these diaries do not contain mention of Chinese ceramic ware.

Figure 10: Celadon hakama-goshi incense burner (14th century) Figure 11: Celadon flower bowl with "counting rods" motif (14th-15th centuries)
Figure 12: Celadon sake jar with peony motif (14th century) Figure 13: Celadon barbed edged flower dish with peony motif (14th century)

In the "Screen Depicting Rakuchu and Rakugai (Kyoto)" in one store on the street there is a display shelf lined with Chinese ceramic ware such as celadon vases and flower bowls. In fact, a set made up entirely of a number of high-grade items of which there are about ten of each, including celadon incense burners, stands for tenmoku bowls and sake cups with legs, has been excavated from a site in the center of Sakai. We may assume that this site is related to the occurrence of some sort of incident that resulted in the disposal of items of Chinese ceramic ware belonging to a merchant (SKT site 82). In other words, the inclusion in the "Screen Depicting Rakuchu and Rakugai (Kyoto)" of a shop handling such high-grade items from overseas symbolized the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital.

In 1543 when Kiyohara Shigekata went to Ichijodani in Echizen to visit his grandfather Kiyohara Nobukata, he went on a sightseeing tour of Abaka upon his arrival in the castle town. Abaka had a port and market, as well as a "Chinatown" where commodities from China were sold. A bustling area, it had the atmosphere of a somewhat seedy shopping and entertainment district. In the Tamon-in Diaries mentioned above, there is also reference to impressions after shopping around in the city (1567). Then, as today, markets attracted people and were places of enjoyment.

Figure 14: White glazed porcelain flower dish with peony motif (12th century) Figure 15: Celadon vase with two looped handles (13th-14th centuries)
Figure 16: Tenmoku bowl (13th-14th centuries) Figure 17: Bluish white meiping vase with swirl motif (13th century)

When Japan's deputy envoy Sakugen Shuryo made two sea journeys to China in 1538 and 1539 he bought a large quantity of Chinese lacquer ware, bronze ware and ceramic ware as gifts and souvenirs. The items he bought the most of were vinegar and salt dishes - most likely blue and white porcelain dishes, of which he bought a total of 687. Although he would have paid for his purchases in silver, if converted to Japanese currency of the time one dish would have cost around one to five mon each. It is evident that the export and import of such items was a profitable business.
(Archaeology, Research Department)

* Fujita Hirotsugu, "Commodity Distribution Viewed from the Perspective of Urban Dwellers in the 16th Century" in ‘A Primer of the History of Japanese Cities - Part I: Space', Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1989