In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Japanese Ceramics

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Journals and Databases
  • Pre- and Proto-Historic Eras
  • Classical/Ancient Era
  • Medieval Era
  • Meiji Era
  • Post-Meiji Era
  • Exchange, Trade, and Intercultural Reception
  • Ceramics and Tea Culture
  • Function and Foodways
  • Ceramic Techniques

Art History Japanese Ceramics
Richard L. Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0148


From its inception in the late 19th century up to the 1970s, modern scholarship in Japanese ceramics was largely bifurcated into archaeology-based studies of pre- and early-historical wares and art-historical investigations of wares from later periods. The former relied on stratigraphic and typological methods. Extensive excavations began in the 1920s, and within two decades a chronology of prehistoric pottery up to the 3rd century had been established for all of the main islands. Successive generations of archaeologists have built on that foundation to create what must be the most complex prehistoric pottery classification system in the world. The efforts of art and craft historians, on the other hand, drew from premodern descriptions of local industries, and especially from the traditions of connoisseurship and collecting developed in the tea ceremony, which focused on form and provenance in a select group of utensils produced or collected in Japan. From the 1910s, influenced by Western aesthetics, the old hierarchy expanded into a “ceramic art” canon that included under- and overglaze decorated wares, notably in porcelain. Supported by a postwar enthusiasm for Japanese traditional culture and development-driven archaeology, ceramics as both art and artifact received broad exposure in exhibitions and publishing both domestically and overseas. Bridges between the archaeological and art-historical approaches appeared in the last two decades of the 20th century with the acceleration of kiln- and user-site excavations. With access to staggering amounts of information on how ceramics of all periods were made, traded, and used, art historians now embrace the findings if not the actual methods of the archaeologist. At the same time, mirroring trends in Western studies of material culture, Japanese ceramics studies as a whole have become more self-reflexive and context-sensitive, and now include critical inquiry into identity-making, collecting, consumer demand, and regionality. Scholarly interest in modern (post-1868) ceramics has also increased considerably since the mid-1990s. Japanese-language literature in every aspect of this field is vast, but here those contributions are limited to reference works, benchmark publications, and select topics that are not covered in English or other Western languages; when English is included in those works, it is noted in the respective entry.


Overviews of Japanese ceramics are rooted in late Edo-period antiquarian studies, surveys for the mammoth domestic and international exhibitions that began in the mid-19th century, and the acquisitions of overseas collectors. As the market for ceramic objects and information burgeoned in Japan in the early 20th century, introductory literature was serialized.

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