The Chitra Collection: Tea Wares of Japan

This Satsuma tea jar was made during the early part of the Meiji period, between 1868 and 1880, by Ryozan, senior decorator at the Yasuda Company in Kyoto and a master of copperplate engraving. The jar is earthenware with overglaze enamels and gilding, and is decorated with birds, figures in a landscape, and geometric patterns typical of designs used on Satsuma wares. The elaborate gilded patterns were seen in Europe as the epitome of Meiji ceramics.

As the popularity of tea drinking spread through the country during the next 400 years, Japan’s tea culture began to change, and Chinese tea vessels and accoutrements were gradually replaced by Japanese wares and utensils from Korea and Southern Asia. In the 16th century, Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591), a merchant who became head tea master to two warlords, introduced a simpler, more democratic way of serving tea that he saw as a means of making everyone equal. Based on the principle of wabi (meaning fresh and simple, having a natural rustic beauty), tea utensils became less showy, more rustic, often locally made from bamboo and pottery finished with rough, textured glazes. Wabicha was often referred to as “grasshut tea” since it took tea out of the grand palaces and into country retreats with thatched roofs where every aspect of life was simple—an antidote to the growing consumerism and materialism of city society.

The Chitra Collection: Tea Wares of Japan
This tea set is silver, enamel, and shibayama on ivory. Shibayama, named after Shibayama Dosho who introduced it in Japan in the 18th century, is the art of inlaying semiprecious materials into lacquer, wood, and ivory. Depressions were carved in the surface, and very small pieces of silver, gold, coral, jade, bone, tortoise shell, horn, mother of pearl, electric blue and pink abalone, etc., were inlaid to form an exquisite, raised, three-dimensional pattern. Shibayama pieces were made specifically for the export market in Europe.

Towards the end of the 17th century, Japan’s trade with Holland had a marked influence on the activities of the Japanese potteries. The Dutch and the Chinese were the only foreigners who were granted the right to trade out of Japan, first from the mainland and then, after 1641, from Dejima Island in Nagasaki harbor. At the same time, China was in turmoil because of the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty by the Manchus, and the ensuing rebellions caused widespread civil unrest and major disruption to the Chinese porcelain industry from the mid-1650s to 1684. As a result, European and Chinese buyers turned more and more to Japan for its supply of porcelain.

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