The island of Kyushu is the traditional home of Japanese ceramics. Not far from Nagasaki, pottery towns have been producing high-quality wares for at least 500 years. Among them is Arita, where Kakiemon originated and which boasts a bridge decorated with ceramics, a shrine to potters, and dozens of working kilns.
The 17th century Japanese potter Kakiemon Sakaida is credited with being one of the first in Japan to discover the secret of decorating porcelain with enamel paint. The name “Kakiemon” was bestowed on Sakaida by his overlord, after he had perfected a design of twin persimmons (kaki means persimmon) and developed a visally persuasive palette of soft red, yellow, blue and turquoise green.
Sakaida Kakiemon started his porcelain business following the fall of the Ming dynasty in China and the disruption of traditional Chinese porcelain exports to Europe. He is said to have been the first in Japan to apply enamel on top of the glaze, a technique he learned from a Chinese artisan in Nagasaki in 1643. He also refined the method for producing a translucent white glaze.
In the mid-17th century the Dutch started to buy Japanese porcelain to export to South-East Asia and Europe. Blue and white wares in the Chinese style were being made by the Japanese, who soon began experimenting with new shapes, colours of enamels and ways of painting. These evolved into two styles that are called Ko-Imari (Old Imari, or Arita) and Kakiemon.
Kakiemon decoration is usually of high quality, delicate and with asymmetric well-balanced designs sparsely applied to emphasize the fine white porcelain background known in Japan as nigoshide (milky white) – used for the finest pieces. Kakiemon wares are usually painted with birds, flying squirrels, the “Quail and Millet” design, the “Three Friends of Winter” (pine, plum, and bamboo), flowers (especially the chrysanthemum, the national flower of Japan) and figures such as the popular “Hob in the Well”, illustrating a Chinese folk tale in which a sage saves his friend who has fallen into a large fishbowl. The most famous Kakiemon decorative device shows sprigs of foliage and little quails – known as the quail pattern.
After being exported to Europe by Dutch merchants, Kakiemon designs influenced the early decorative styles of several European factories, including Chelsea, Bow, and Worcester in England; Meissen in Germany; and Chantilly in France. And non-Japanese Kakiemon began to rival the original, which today can rarely be found outside museum collections. Once in a while they surface. In May 2012 Christie’s (London) auctioned a pair of 17th century Kakiemon tigers both just 25cm in height and “decorated in iron-red, yellow, blue and black enamels, the characterful animals seated on tree stump bases decorated in a dark brown glaze”. They sold for £169,250 – an Emperor’s ransom at the time they were made.