A SHORT HISTORY OF TOKONAME WARE
by Ichiro Akahane
The Origins of Tokoname Ware
Among the six ancient kilns of Japan, Tokoname ware was produced and fired in
the kilns located along the ridge of hills running through the Chita peninsula,
centering around Tokoname city and is called Ko Tokoname (old Tokoname ware).
Production of Tokoname ware has flourished since the late Heian period and it
is probably the oldest of the six ancient kilns.
As in all countries of the world,the main stream of fine arts was patronized
by religious institutions, royal familiesand the aristocracy. Since old
Tokoname ware was produced for religious purpose of that time, the remains of
old Tokoname ware have been discovered in religious sites all over the country,
but mainly in sutra mounds. Old Tokoname ware was made as the vase to contain
Buddhist sutras. As inscribed plaques are often found at sutra mounds with the
name of the person for whom the sutra mound was established and the date, some
of the old Tokoname excavated pieces can be dated quite precisely. The sites
where Tokoname vases were used in sutra mounds were at the mountain temples of
the Tendai sect and the Shugendo sect (a mixture of primitive mountain lore and
Esoteric Buddhism) or in the sutra mounds made by the "Yin-Yang" sect (positive
and negative principles of Chinese philosophy).
Although sutra mounds are distributed throughout most of the country, they
are found principally in the following provinces: Shiga, mainly at Mt. Hiei,
Mie, Kyoto, Wakayama, Kamakura and Iwate.
The seaside of Kamakura is famous for the remains of old Tokoname, Chinese
celadon and Ch'ing-pai porcelain.In the north-eastern district of Honshu, many
fine old Tokoname vases are found in Iwate prefecture, chiefly at the Chusonji
temple of Hiraizumi, which was built by three generations of the Fujiwara family.
Besides sutra mound vases, we see old Tokoname vases containing ashes of the
cremated, dating from the late Heian period. One of the representative funerary
urns is a jar with the incised design of autumn plants which is registered as a
"national treasure". This jar had not been considered as Tokoname ware in the
past but is now recognizedas "old Tokoname". Funerary vases mark their appearance
from the late Heian period since the custom of cremation had become popular among
the aristocracy of the time. These funerary urns are large in size and are very
rare. They became smaller during the Kamakura period. However at the end of the
Kamakura period, small funerary urns of Tokoname ware were fired in great
quantity because the custom of cremation had become increasingly popular and
also, the number of battles which took such a heavy toll of lives, further
necessitated the practice. During the Muromachi period, utensile for daily use
increased in production at the Tokoname kilns while religious articles declined
until most of the Tokoname ware were products for daily use. The result was that
Tokoname kilns of the time began producing ware for sale and profit.
The kilns began to be located along the coast line having protective hills in
the background. With a steady improvement in the people's economic condition,
their culture gradually attained a higher level of development and the Momoyama
period ushered in a new Japanese world of beauty. The pottery of the Tokoname
kilns changed with the times, with the production of tea utensils reflecting the
tastes of the period.
Tokoname religious ware of the Heian and Kamakura periods was fired in anagama
kilns (tunneled sloping kilns) but they were replaced by half surface kilns or
surface kilns during the Muromachi period. The same style of kiln construction
continues today in the Tokoname region, maintaining a tradition of five centuries.
According to the chronological division of Japanese history, Tokoname pieces
produced before early Modern Japan should be called old Tokoname ware. However,
we call only the pieces fired during the periods when the anagama kilns were in
use "old Tokoname ware". Other Tokoname pieces produced after the Kamakura period
are called "Tokoname ware of the Muromachi period" and the ones of modern Japan,
"Tokoname ware of the Edo period". Tokoname ware, indeed, has a long history.
Classification of Old Tokoname Ware
1.Large Jar with Ash Glaze
This type of jar shows the most salient characteristics of old Tokoname ware.
It is rough in appearance and stands out with a powerful masculine sense of form.
Usually, these jars are stamped with three or six horizontal bands on the body.
Sometimes they are often stamped with only one band on the shoulder. Originally
the stamps were few in number showing slight variations. But towards the end of
the Kamakura period, a greater variety of stamps were in use. There are a few
jars with an incised mark on the shoulder, dispensing entirely with stamped
impressions. The largest sizes of these jars are 93.0 cm. and 88.0 cm. in diameter.
2.Vase used in Sutra Mound
The standard height of this type of jar is around 35.0 cm. The most productive
period of vases for sutra mounds was 1100 A.D. to 1150 A.D. and these vases are
found in great quantity. The markings are either stamped or incised. Great care
was taken in making these vases in a highly distinctive style and potters fired
them with a feeling of respect.
3.Large Flat Bowl
There are four sizes, measuring respectively 22.0 cm., 27.0 cm., 33.0 cm., and
40.0 cm. in diameter, and were used as covers for vases or jars in the sutra
mounds. Plain and undecorated, these mortar shaped bowls have a spout to assist
in the answering of one's prayer.
4.Vase with Three Carved Lines
This vase has three carved horizontal lines on the body, and is referred to as
"san-kin-ko" in Japan. The vase was made as a container for Buddhist sutras, but
was often used to contain the ashes of the cremated in the early Kamakura period.
The design of three carved horizontal lines is characteristic of old Tokoname
ware and evidently, is unique to this ware. Judging from the excavation sites
vases with the three carved lines seem to have represented moral rules govering
the five human relations. The vase is divided into five sections by the three
lines on the body, that is, "sky, wind, fire, water and earth".
The vases with three carved lines disappeared after the early Kamakura period
and vases the same size as above began to be produced. This transition probably
represents a change of religious attitude. The vases with three carved lines
were produced with a lofty ideal, while the new vases display an intimate feeling
and are somewhat distorted in shape.
6.Vase with Carved Design
A strange mark is carved on the shoulder of the vase produced at the end of the
Kamakura and through the Nanbokucho periods. This means that a new religion had
taken root during this time.
7.Roof Tile for Buddhist Temple
This is called a"white pottery tile". The roof of the Ninnaji temple, a ruined
temple at Okazaki Park and Anrakujuin in Kyoto, are covered with these tiles. In
the Tokoname area, the roofs of old buildings at Noma Omura are covered with
similar tiles.The tiles were fired in fairly large quantity during the late Heian
through the early Kamakura periods.
This type of vessel was produced in small quantity and large size lipped bowls
are very rare. The hard edged small lipped bowl may have been used for camellia
While there are not many examples of this type, none have been excavated from
sutra mounds. They are found only at kiln sites of the late Heian and early
Kamakura periods, and their purpose is not clearly understood.
This is usually called "yamachawan" or, mountain tea bowl by many people. We,
however, would like to call it a "flat bowl", as "yamachawan" does not describe
its function. It is a forerunncr of the earthenware cup used at Shinto shrines
later on. There were many kilns that produced this type of ware,firing three or
four thousand flat bowls at one time. The bowl has the characteristic shell-like
pattem on the flat base (itozoko), a mark left by the cut-off string. The foot
of the bowl was formed separately and later attached to the body, and shows
places where chaff-remains stuck during the firing. Sometimes, the bottom of
the bowl shows sand marks.
This is a flat dish with a spout and was used as a lid for the vase with
three carved lines. The lipped dish was originally made for this purpose.
When we made excavations at the kilns of the late Heian period, which were
producing only flat bowls, we discovered that ten percent of the products at
these kilns were lipped dishes.
Like the flat bowls, these cups were produced in large quantity. This cup
has the shell-like pattern on the flat base resulting from the twisted thread
used to cut the piece free. And like the flat bowls, the foot of the cup,
which was formed separately and later attached to the body, shows places where
chaff-remains stuck during the firing. Sometimes we find flat based cups
without any foot rim. As there is evidence that a small cup was used in
household Buddhist shrines of the Muromachi period, this cup was probably made
for that purpose.
These were found in great quantity at the kiln sites of the Kamakura period
and there is the possibility they will be found at the kiln sites of the Heian
period. Four kinds of sinkers are known and they were strung to fishing nets
There are very few examples which have been excavated. A few ink slabs which
have been uncovered date from the Kamakura period. Ink slabs were chiefly used
when people copied Buddhist sutras but most of the ink slabs were Sue type
pottery. It is very interesting for us to find Tokoname ware ink slabs of the
Kamakura period at the time when the custom of sutra mounds was not so active.
There are not many excavated examples of small stands in old Tokoname ware.
Usually there are two small bowls on the stand. Similar examples of the same
size and style are found in the remains of Sue pottery at the old kilns of
Atsumi peninsula and Sanageyama. It is very interesting that these three wares
look as if they derved from the same ceramic stock. As the stand is very small,
it must have been a ceremonial vessel and not actually used indaily life.
Only one excavated example is known. As the die represents the four directions,
the heavens, the earth and stars, it must have been used as ceremonial vessel
for praying to God.
We find many examples of this in old Seto ware, however, there have not been
many excavated pieces in old Tokoname ware. It is said that the small ball was
used as a bullet in warfare, but this is doubtful because some of the small
balls were found in sutra mounds. It must have been used as a substitute for a
18.Long Necked Vase
The vase has a band of flower petals in relief between the neck and shoulder,
and this is one of the characteristics of old Tokoname ware. We find many
examples of this style both in large and small pieces. As they were produced in
the Heian period and faith in the teachings of Kannon Bodhisattva was widely
popular during this time, it may represent a suibyo (water bottle) held by
Kannon Bodhisattva, as a symbol of purity.
Characteristics of Old Tokoname Ware
An old Tokoname vase has a coarse sandy grey body and is covered with a
natural greenish-yellow wood ash glaze on the body, which has run down the
sides in streaks like a mountain stream or waterfall. It is an attractive and
impressive piece. Vases or jars of the Heian period are thinly potted and are
imbued with a sublime idea. The reason why they still retain the grace and
delicacy of the Hiean period is that the high culture of the time is reflected
in old Tokoname pieces. Tokoname pieces of the Heian period have expanded thin
mouths, which remind us of the sharp point on a Japanese sword.
The Kamakura peices stretch their shoulders remarkably and suggest the power
of a militaristic government. Some of them are covered with a natural ash glaze
running down the sides in streaks. The lip sections of the vessels are rolled
back in a curve from the openings and this technique gives a fine spring and
tautness to the double-fold finish on neck openings. This is one of the
characteristics of old Tokoname pieces of the Kamakura period.
Stamp impressions on the vessels are also characteristic of old Tokoname ware.
If we should classify the stamps into small group, they would be divided into
several hundreds. However, the basic stamps can be classified into a few groups.
They are considered as amulets to avert the evils cast by the Tendai sect. But,
in the late Kamakura period,stamps with different ideas made their appearance.
Depending on the size of the vessels, stamps were impressed on the shoulder or
body, in one, three or five lines.
A mudra of the Shugendo sect of Buddhism was carved on the shoulder of some
of the Tokoname jars made during the late Kamakura through the Nanbokucho
periods. This suggest that a new faith might have arisen.
We often see sand marks on the bases of old Tokoname pieces showing the
process of pottery making. Except for Tokoname ware, we don't find sandy bases
on Japanese ceramics. However, some of the old Tokoname pieces are not sand
marked and instead, bear the mark of "clog supports". This indicates that the
vessels were potted on a "rotary stand" much like a potter's wheel.
Big flat bowls were also potted on a rotary stand. A bowl was given its
finished shape by trimming the underside,and while the foot was formed
separately,it was later attached to the body. The rotary stand is a kind of
potter's wheel which is not very precise. This method of potting on a rotary
stand and utilizing sand was practised until the Muromachi period. We find many
foot rims of flat bowls showing places where chaff-remains stuck during the
firing of old Tokoname ware indicating another one of its characteristics.
Throwing Techniques of Old Tokoname Ware
The following three methods are considered as the throwing techniques of old
(1) Old Tokoname pieces were potted only by potter's hands and legs by the coil
method (jars or vases).
(2) They were formed on a rotary stand by the coil method (vases).
(3) They were thrown on a primitive potter's wheel by the tatara technique
where a cylindrical form was coil built and a vessel was shaped by moving the
wheel (large flat bowls or flat bowls).
Among the three methods, the most characteristic technique of old Tokoname
ware is No. 1, that is, a vessel was coil built by hand.
(1) The potter sprinkles a wooden plate with sand and the base of the vessel is
formed first by beating. Thus sand is imbedded in the underside of the form.
A coil of clay about 10 cm. in diameter is attached to the base, then it is
smoothed and stretched from the inside with a wooden shaping tool keeping the
left hand on the outer surface. The potter attaches the coil clockwise and builds
the wall step by step. After attaching two coils and smoothing them, the potter
leaves the clay as it is and adds two more coils the next day. In this manner,
the potter gradually shapes a vessel in four or five stages. It takes about three
to five days for the potter to complete the form. A stamp is put on the outer
surface where the clay slabs are joined after piling. By this technique, a round
vase is formed without using a potter's wheel. The technique of coil construction
continues to be used today in the Tokoname region, spanning a history of over 900
(2) Coiling clay on a rotary stand is done as in the above technique, but only
small vases are potted by this method. Since the vases given their final
finishing on the rotary stand, they usually show classical features. Some of the
vessels produced by this technique often show the impressions of "clog supports",
wood grain, or a bisque fired throwing plate. However, no sand marks are found
in this type.
(3) Flat bowls of various sizes are thrown on a small but sturdy rotary stand.
As the clay was shaped on the wheel, turning marks can be seen on these pieces.
It is most remarkable, however, that big flat bowls were thrown off the hump.
They do lack the spiral pattern in the clay usually found in vessels thrown on
a similar potter's wheel of the Edo period.
Tunneled Sloping Kiln and Its Distribution
One of the characteristics of old Tokoname ware is that it was fired in
anagama kilns (tunneled sloping kilns). Both Sue and old Tokoname ware were
fired in tunneled sloping kilns but Sue kilns were more advanced technically
and differed in construction. In sue ware kilns, first a tunnel was dug, then
the floor, walls and ceiling were covered with fire clay. There was only one
fire port. On the contrary, the tunneled sloping kilns for old Tokoname ware
were dug in the slope and used as they were. No fire clay covered the interior.
This is a remarkable difference between the two kilns. A suitable stratum is
the first prerequsite for the tunneled sloping kilns of old Tokoname ware. A
silica formation must run close to the surface of the ground where old
Tokoname kilns were constructed. Most minerals constrict when heated, however,
silica always expands when heated and thus, old Tokoname kilns were not
destroyed by several firings. The special stratification in the Tokoname area
where silica formations run close to the surface of the ground, are where old
Tokoname kilns were established. Tunneled sloping kilns clustered upon the
desired Tokoname strata and an estimated 3,000 kilns existed on a large scale
through the Heian and Kamakura periods (794-1333).
The remains of these kilns is a most spectacular sight and not seen elsewhere
A pillar was set up in the center of the fire port of the kiln, marking a
difference between the tunneled sloping kilns for Sue type ware which have no
pillars. As the old Tokoname kilns were very big in scale, a pillar in the
center of fire port must have been necessary for reinforcement However, even
the small tunneled sloping kilns for flat bowls have pillars in the center of
the fire port, so the purpose was not only for reinforcement but also embodies
the positive and negative principles of Chinese philosophy. The pillar divides
the fire port and kiln into two chambers, one side being "negative" and the
other "positive" and the kiln was then fired by these principles. Further
ramification of this philosophy is demonstrated by the two parallel chambers
spaced about one meter apart. One chamber is on a 30 degrees incline while the
other inclines 20 degrees on the average. As every tunneled sloping kiln is
constructed along the same principles, it is clear that the 30 degrees chamber
and the 20 degrees chamber were tunneled as a pair. The rainy season in spring
and summer was considered "positive" and the more steeply inclined chamber of
30 degrees was fired since there was so much moisture. The dry season in
autumn and winter was believed "negative", so the inclined chamber of 20
degrees was used, its draft being assisted by the wind this time of year.
This is a very scientific method of firing. It is definite that the tunneled
sloping kilns were fired with the positive and negative principles of Chinese
philosophy in accommodation to nature.
Tokoname Wares of the Muromachi through Edo Periods
Owing to the collapse and disorder of the militaristic government in the
Muromachi period, Tokoname ware of the time underwent same changes. Old
Tokoname ware was a product of the tunneled sloping kilns which were easily
relocated. But half surface or surface kilns in the Muromachi period
(1392-1573) began to be permanently established at certain places and
produced not only religious objects but also various utensils for daily use.
With the dramatic decline in the production of religious articles accompanied
by improved organization and management, the kilns were soon into mass
production of jars and vases.
Together with the change in kiln construction, the kind of clay used also
changed. Mountain clay, which is low in iron content, was used for old
Tokoname ware. But for mass production during the Muromachi period, potters
began to use clay which was found in large quantity underneath their
rice-fields. Since clay from the rice-fields is high in iron content and the
refractoriness is lower than mountain clay, the pottery could be fired harder
by the lower heat of the surface kilns. A Tokoname vase of the Muromachi
period appears to be "stoneware". Vases and jars made from clay containing
iron oxide, when fired, turned black all over, showing one of the
characteristics of Tokoname ware of this period. They are bulky and heavy
vessels and full of local color of the Tokoname area.
When the tunneled sloping kilns were active, virgin forests in Tokoname
area were used as fuel, using such wood as oak, camphor, mirica and camellia.
Virgin forests in this area seem to have been depleted by the end of the
Kamakura period, and as a consequence, pine, which was the chief fuel during
the Muromachi period, had to be imported from Ise and Kishu provinces.
The fire in the tunneled sloping kilns was a reducing to a strong reducing
flame while the flame in the Tokoname kilns of the Muromachi period was an
oxidizing one since the mountain clay was high in iron content. This is a
distinguishing characteristic between old Tokoname ware and Tokoname ware of
the Muromachi period. It is worthy of note that ceramic change with the times
and in contrast to the time of the tunneled sloping kilns, potters now
attempted compounding glazes technically during the Muromachi period. The
natural glaze of the period came from pine ash and resembles yellow sesame
Even in the Muromachi period, many jars or vases which were made by the
Tokoname technique, still have sandy bases. Rotary stands continued to be
used during this period and small jars potted on this instrument display
elegant shapes with base marks showing "clog supports".
Big surface kilns were established on the hills near the shoreline with
easy access for boats and during the Muromachi period, large quantities of
Tokoname ware were shipped to various places, taking advantage of water
transport. Wherever a waterway was available, we find Tokoname pieces of
the Muromachi period.
Kilns in the Echizen and Tamba regions had produced jars and vases like
Tokoname ware since the Kamakura period, and often Tokoname ware is mistaken
for "Tamba", "Echizen" or sometimes, "Bizen" or "Namban ware".
This is especially true in the Kansai district where Tokoname jars of the
Muromachi period are called "Tamba ware".
During this period, Mizuno Kenmotsu, better known as Lord Tokoname,
was a prominent man who had a talent for linked verse and the tea ceremony.
Kenmotsu cultivated the friendship of such well-known men as Tsuda Sokyu and
Sen-no Rikyu to whom he introduced many fine earlier Tokoname vases. One of
the most famous pieces is a water jar once owned by Rikyu. It was named
"Fushiki" and has been handed down for generations.
The Tokoname region was one of the bases for the Shugendo sect of the time
and the Kosanji temple in this area was a powerful temple of the Enjoji group.
As Kenmotsu had the Kosanji temple under his influence, he presented a
problem to Oda Nobunaga at the time when Nobunaga began to extend his power.
Kenmotsu had connections with Akechi Mitsuhide, the man who killed Nobunaga
at the Honnoji temple. Because of this, Kenmotsu abandoned the Tokoname
castle to avoid the confusion and fled to the Tenryuji temple in Saga,
Kyoto. After Kenmotsu left the Tokoname castle, the Kosanji temple and
Tokoname village were completely burned to the ground. The Tokohame kilns
also suffered heavy losses.
According to the tea ceremony diaries by Tsuda Sohkyu, we see that
Kenmotsu enjoyed the tea ceremony quite often with Rikyu and Sohkyu.
The diary says that Kenmotsu showed a big jar today, which means that he
introduced Tokoname ware at the ceremony. Rikyu's diary titled "One Hundred
Tea Ceremonies" tells that today the "Fushiki" water jar was used and that
Kenmotsu was the host of the tea ceremony. Kenmotsu entered priesthood but
later committed suicide by disembowelment at the Tenryuji temple in 2nd
year of Keicho (1597).
The Tokoname kilns were quickly reconstructed in the early modern period
of Japan and with the remarkable developments of culture and the improved
economic situation of the merchant class, the rank of potters, which had
been held down by the strict caste system, gradually gained in importance.
Watanabe Yahei, who was active during the Tenmei era (1781-1789), was given
the title "Tokoname Genkohsai" by Lord Owari. He was the first potter who
signed his name to Tokoname ware. Thus, the age of anonymous potters was
replaced by the age of signed Tokoname ware. During the Bunka and Bunsei
eras(1804-1830), Tokoname ware entirely wheel thrown were produced. There
were many excellent potters. Hakuoh, Chohza and Tohzen were the leading
potters at the end of the Edo period. It was about this time that the
famous "Mogake" glaze was developed by lna Chohza II. During the Ansei
period (1854-1860), Sugie Jumon succeeded in producing his copies of the
I-hsing pot (red stoneware pot) and they were greatly appreciated by his