Japanese craft (工芸 kōgei) has a long and proud tradition and includes hand crafts made by an individual or a group. The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture of Japan has stated that crafts (工芸技術 Kōgei Gijutsu), are divided into eight categories: papermaking, woodworking, dollmaking, metalworking, lacquerware, textiles, pottery, and other. The categories are further subdivided into more specific subcategories.
Kokeshi Dolls. | Alex Watson
Many other variations are officially recognized and protected by the government. Craftsmen are eligible for recognition either as an individual (Individual Certification) or as part of a group (Preservation Group Certification), into the list of Living National Treasures of Japan (crafts).
Some crafts are awarded the status of meibutsu, or regional specialties. Each type of Japanese craft takes time to learn. It demands a set of specialized skills that have been passed on for many generations. Japanese craft works are designed to serve a specific functional or utilitarian purpose, making them beautiful and useful at the same time.
History tells us that Japanese craft dates back to the time humans settled on the Japanese islands. Handcrafting had roots in the rural crafts (traditional crafts production that is carried on, simply for everyday practical use, in the agricultural countryside). Traditionally, handcrafters made use of natural, indigenous materials, even today. Traditional Japanese craft distinguishes itself from decorative arts and fine arts, as being created to be used. Crafts were needed by all levels of Japanese society. The execution and design of each type became increasingly sophisticated over time.
Japanese crafts were developed and taught to succeeding generations. This was known as dentō (伝 統), where systems of Japanese traditions were passed down within a teacher-student relationship (shitei 師弟). It included a strict system of rules to enable learning and teaching of a way (dō 道). It was a common tradition that mastery of certain crafts was passed down within the family for many generations, establishing dynasties. The established master’s name was then assumed instead of the personal one. If there is no male heir, a relative or a student could be adopted to continue the line.
Sake bottle. | Ashley Van Haeften
Some Japanese handicrafts include Kutani ware, from Ishikawa, a style of Japanese Gotō Saijirō porcelain known for its colorful, vibrant painted designs. Kutani ware was established by Gotō Saijirō of the Maeda Clan. Another popular craft is Kokeshi dolls, from Miyagi. They are traditional hand-crafted Japanese wooden dolls with origins traceable to northern Japan. And a final example is Bizen ware. It is characteristically reddish-brown in color. It is known for being hard as iron, and it isn’t glazed like other types of pottery. It has distinct markings from the wood-burning kiln (an insulated chamber or oven with controlled temperature used for hardening or drying earthenware) firing.
Japanese traditional arts and handicrafts have been subjected to many outside influences from other cultures. It was a result of the numerous sudden invasions the island nation endured through the course of history, followed by long periods of minimal contact from the outside world during Japan’s sakoku period.
The earliest complex Japanese art form was Buddhism, from the 7th and 8th centuries. During the 9th century, the Japanese began to develop their own indigenous forms of expression as they incorporated their own styles into what they had adapted from the Chinese. The culmination and aesthetic uniqueness of traditional Japanese art is a result of assimilating the influence of foreign cultures and elements.
Many regions of Japan have their own specialties in traditional handicrafts. Here are just a few of them.
Kutani ware, Ishikawa – a style of Japanese Gotō Saijirō porcelain known for its colorful, vibrant painted designs. Kutani ware was established by Gotō Saijirō of the Maeda Clan. He was responsible for setting up a kiln in the village of Kutani, now part of the city of Kaga, under the orders of Maeda Toshiharu, head of the Kaga domain. Kutani ware is distinguished by designs mainly using five colors (red, yellow, purple, blue, and green) that are used to paint over intricate line drawings. Many different products such as vases, tea sets, and ornaments are made using this traditional technique.
Kutani incense burner. | antefixus21
Kokeshi dolls, Miyagi – traditional hand-crafted Japanese wooden dolls with origins traceablle to northern Japan. The dolls have a straight, cylindrical body with large, round heads. The faces of the kokeshi are painted with very simple lines that still convey their various expressions. Since the dolls are hand-painted, each doll is unique; no two kokeshi dolls have identical faces. Traditionally, the body is coated with wax and usually decorated with floral designs of varying colors. The bottom of the dolls should bear the signature of the artist.
Kokeshi dolls. | Hitty Evie
Matsumoto-temari, Matsumoto – these handcrafted balls are decorated with scraps of yarn woven to create beautiful designs. Initially, the balls were meant to be used as beanbags for children. But a way to make the bean bags bounce was discovered, and the toy soon became known as temari handballs. Some balls are made with bells inside. They make a unique sound when bounced around. Temari balls are commonly used today as decorative accent pieces in many Japanese homes.
Temari balls. | GrinnPidgeon
Kutani ware (九谷焼 Kutani-yaki) is a style of Japanese Gotō Saijirō porcelain known for its colorful, vibrant painted designs. Kutani ware was established by Gotō Saijirō of the Maeda Clan. He was responsible for setting up a kiln in the village of Kutani, now part of the city of Kaga, under the orders of Maeda Toshiharu, head of the Kaga domain.
Kutani ware (from the Kutani/nine valleys Village) was first documented in 1655, in the first year of the Myoreki epoch. The Kutani mine belonging to the Daishoji Clan had ideal stones to create porcelain. Lord Maeda Toshiharu then instructed Gotō Saijirō to travel to Arita Village and learn the art of making porcelain.
Old kutani furnace (left)/Stone monument of Gotō Saijirō (right) | Namazu-tron
The history of Kutani Ware can be divided into three periods.
Ko-Kutani, meaning old Kutani, are ceramics produced during the first 50 years. These ceramics usually consist of five colors: red, yellow, purple, blue, and green. The traditional Ko-Kutani making process was passed down from one generation to the next, but its continuity halted sometime in the 1800s. Some reasons for the decline were the lack of patronage from the Daishoji clan and the rising popularity of the Arita Ware style, an Imari Iroe porcelain.
Saiko Kutani, meaning the revival of Kutani, originates from the Kasugayama Kiln in Kanazawa 100 years after Ko-Kutani. Many kilns with varying styles competed with one another. One of the more prominent techniques at the time was Kinrade that featured red and gold designs.
The last Kutani period emerged at the beginning of the Meiji era sometime in the 1860s. At the same time, Kutani Ware was introduced in Europe. The more popular design at the time was “Saishoku-Kinrande,” a technique involving the use of modern paint and Western materials combined with old Kutani methods.
Kutani cup. | Virginia Hill
Over the years, Japanese master potters developed other techniques such as the use of gold leaf and other colors that come out with proper firing and also transform the material into glass. Kutani come in a broad range of designs and colors, from simple to elaborate gold leaf mainly produced in Kanazawa. The “Yuri-Kinsai” technique, a glazed gold leaf over the surface of a piece, was designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property in 2001. A memorial to Gotō has also been erected near an old Kutani ware kiln in the city of Kaga.
Check out this video from the factory of Konami Choemon:
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