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Nabeshima Ware as Gifts for the Tokugawa Shogun
Ohashi Koji, Director emeritus, Kyushu Ceramic Museum
In the history of Japanese ceramics, the closest to Chinese Imperial ware produced by an imperially run kiln for the court (kanyo) would be Nabeshima ware. The ware was produced at the kiln directly operated by the Nabeshima clan, rulers of the Saga Domain during the Edo period (1615-1868). Nabeshima ware was made primarily as gifts for the Tokugawa Shogun, the ultimate ruler in Japan during Edo period. These gifts have their roots in the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) where Nabeshima Katsushige (1580-1657), later the first daimyo of Saga, sided against the Tokugawa faction and lost. Contrary to usual practice, he was forgiven by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1553-1616), the victor of the battle. Katsushige made considerable effort to build a strong relationship with Ieyasu and sent many gifts to the Shogun and his household.
Katsushige sourced silk and porcelains from China, both highly valued in Japan at that time, and offered them to the Shogun’s household. The recent excavation of Edo Castle, the residence of the Shogun, revealed that the main tableware used by the Shogun was in fact porcelain from the Jingdezhen kilns mainly dating to the early 17th century. The Great Meireki Fire of 1657 destroyed Edo Castle and many ceramics were discarded behind stonewalls when the residence was rebuilt. However, due to civil conflict in China, from 1644 for a number of decades only a small amount of Chinese ceramics were able to be imported into Japan. Instead, Arita ware from Hizen province was able to come to the forefront of the porcelain trade by the 1640s to 1650s.
Sourcing the ceramic gifts suitable for the supreme ruler was a serious issue and Katsushige pushed the Nabeshima clan’s kiln in Arita to produce the highest quality porcelain. According to an extant record, Katsushige showed the products made at the kiln to the third Shogun Iemitsu at Edo Castle in 1651. In fact, a small amount of early Nabeshima ware was excavated amongst the discarded ceramics from the Great Fire of 1657. These discarded wares reveal the fact that Nabeshima ware was used in Edo Castle before 1657 and demonstrate which types of tableware were employed.
One of the central systems that shored up the Tokugawa Shogunate’s centralised power in Edo was the sankin-kotai [alternate attendance] system under which daimyo were forced to travel to Edo and reside there with their wives and children to serve the Shogun. Only daimyo were allowed to return to their domains on alternate years, leaving their family in the city of Edo as virtual hostages. In addition, there was another regimented system of ‘gift-giving’ in which daimyo were required to present the Shogun with gifts such as local products every year. Extant records record that only eight of approximately 300 daimyo presented ceramics as gifts to the Shogun’s household.
Tableware from the Nabeshima clan was the most significant ware among such presents. The Nabeshima clan presented the Shogun with five types of tableware, a total of 82 items: two hachi dishes (30cm. diam.), 20 ozara dishes (21cm. diam.), 20 chuzara dishes (15cm. diam.), 20 kozara dishes (10cm. diam.) and 20 choko [cups]. The same number of items was also presented to the Dainagon, the successor to the Shogun. In addition, around three types of tableware were also offered to each of 35 to 41 high officials in the Shogunate, adding up to around 2,000 items. This was part of the duty that was imposed on the Nabeshima clan under the gift-giving system. The difference between the items for the Shogun, and those for the high officials and leaders of other domains has been partially revealed through documents. According to the record, which records that the tenth Shogun Ieharu (1737-1786) requested twelve designs in 1774, the Nabeshima ware presented to the shogun had the reverse design of peony and karakusa (floral scroll) (lots 48 and 49). Before 1774, the peony and karakusa design varied depending on the size of the dishes. The common design of the cash motif was not used for the shogun household.
Primarily destined for tableware for use of the Shogun, Nabeshima ware was susceptible to his movements. In 1659, when Arita ware products were actively exported to Europe via the Dutch East India Company, the Nabeshima domain run kiln moved from Arita to Okawachiyama in Imari. This was to separate the domain-run kiln from other local privately run kilns in Arita in order to protect the confidentiality of the technique and the designs of Nabeshima ware itself. Early works such as those in lots 48 and 49 were made in this kiln. In the 1690s, Nabeshima ware entered its peak at the time of the fifth Shogun Tsunayoshi (1646-1709). Having received the request for even-higher quality ware by the Shogun, Nabeshima Mitsushige (1632-1700), the second daimyo of Saga, ordered the domain-run kiln in Okawachiyama to push the quality to ever higher levels and excellent craftsmen were brought over from private kilns in Arita. As a result, Nabeshima ware became the highest quality ceramics with supremely refined designs. Wares from this period are called seiki Nabeshima [peak Nabeshima ware] and are generally highly acclaimed (lots 43 and 47).
However, seiki Nabeshima came to an end in the 1720s on account of the financial reforms brought in by the eighth Shogun Yoshimune (1684-1751) who requested less extravagant gifts. In response to the Shogun’s order not to make iro [polychrome] Nabeshima ware, products decorated with three colour enamels disappeared and those decorated with a limited single colour, blue, became the main product (lots 44 and 45). In 1774, as already discussed, the tenth Shogun Ieharu ordered 12 designs to his taste, and afterwards later Nabeshima ware were fired up until the end of Edo period.
The Nabeshima clan of Saga Domain, in which the ceramic production region Arita is located, produced special tableware for the supreme rulers of Japan, namely, Nabeshima ware. Staking the clan’s life blood, absorbing the high cost of production and disregarding economic concerns for almost 200 years under the Tokugawa Shogunate’s gift-giving system, the Nabeshima clan kept producing the tableware destined to be significant gifts with precise, detailed and superior designs executed with a virtuosity that cannot be found in other private kilns in Japan.