Exhibition at the Embassy of Japan

ARITA 1616-2016 日本初の磁器・有田焼

until 5 February 2016

Open weekdays 09:30 - 17:30, closed weekends
Admission is free, but photo ID is necessary to gain entry to the Embassy.

The Embassy of Japan, 101-104 Piccadilly, London W1J 7JT

The latest exhibition at the Embassy of Japan marks 400 years of Japanese porcelain manufacture with pieces from the Arita kilns in Japan. With works ranging from those by Living National Treasure Kakiemon XIV to everyday Japanese tableware one can also see the immense influence Japanese porcelain design had on the early European ceramics factories of the 18th century.

1616 is the date traditionally attributed to birth of Japanese porcelain and its birthplace is Arita in what was Hizen Province, now in Saga Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu. It is a story of a synthesis of the skills of East Asian craftsmen employing Korean manufacturing and Chinese decoration techniques with refined Japanese taste.
Porcelain is made from a clay that requires a particular mixture of minerals, including kaolin and feldspar. These were found naturally together, in just the right ratio, in Arita at Izumiyama Quarry.

Porcelain was in high demand and the Japanese soon found that it was a profitable commodity for export. Although the kilns in Arita lay at the heart of the porcelain production, the port from which the porcelain was shipped was called Imari and some Arita ware is known by this name.

At first, the only decoration was in blue underglaze, and pieces in this style were called shoki-imari (Early Imari) wares. Once overglaze polychrome enamel decoration had been perfected in the 1640s, the Kakiemon style predominated. In the late 17th century Kinrande, or gold-painted decoration, was introduced. Today, Arita predominately produces tableware for domestic consumption.


After the collapse of the Ming dynasty in China in 1644, Chinese porcelain manufacture ceased and Japan briefly became the world’s biggest exporter of porcelain. Europeans were hungry for East Asian porcelain and they were still searching for the secret of how to make it. Japan (specifically Arita in Hizen Province) was the only place manufacturing porcelain in any great quantity and the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki (also in Hizen Province) had the monopoly on the export of porcelain to Europe.

The distinctive colourful Kakiemon pieces became immensely popular with the European clientele who had only previously known Chinese blue and white ware, and the Kakiemon kiln in Arita could not keep up with the demand. Other kilns in Arita copied the style. In Europe, where porcelain production remained a mystery, Dutch artists skilfully copied ‘Kakiemon’ decoration onto blank vessels imported from Japan. Queen Mary II (1662 – 1694) was said to be extremely fond of the style and the royal residences of William and Mary were filled with Japanese ‘Kakiemon’ porcelain.

Once the method of manufacturing porcelain had been discovered in Europe in the 18th century, the Kakiemon style significantly influenced the early decorative styles of several European factories, including Chelsea, Bow, and Worcester in England; Meissen in Germany; and Chantilly in France.

Look out for more about the 400th anniversary of the first firing of porcelain in Japan later on in the year. Some of the pieces in this exhibition have been kindly lent courtesy of E & H Manners.