Museum Dictionary

Seto Ware and Chinese Ceramics

Setomono, or Seto ware, was originally used to describe ceramics that were produced in the region of Seto (now near Seto City in Aichi Prefecture). However, because Seto was a famous production site of ceramics, over time, it came to describe Japanese ceramics in general and not necessarily to works made in Seto.

Ceramic production started from as early as the Kofun (Tumulus) period (about 260-590 A.D.) in Seto, however, it was not until the beginning of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) that its ceramic ware started to show distinguishable features. Although Japanese ceramics have historically shown distinct characteristics depending on where they were produced, Seto ware was unique in that it was glazed. During the Kamakura period, Seto was about the only place in Japan where glaze was used. In this respect, Seto ware could be considered a luxury item of those days. But what was considered even more luxurious were ceramics imported to Japan from China.

In the Kamakura period, trade between the Song dynasty (960-1279) of China and Japan flourished, and ceramics was among the many objects imported to Japan; representative examples include Jar with Four Lugs, Vase with Chinese Boy and Arabesques, and Sutra Container. Such Chinese ceramics have been frequently discovered during archaeological excavations, revealing their popularity amongst the early Japanese. And since popular things tend to be in great demand, they are also apt to be in short supply. As a result, imitations started to be produced in large quantities. Such is the way of the world that even when there is no shortage of the real thing, similar objects start to appear at a lower price.

  • White Glazed Porcelain Jar with Four Lugs
    White Glazed Porcelain Jar
    Four Lugs
  • Qingbai (Clear Blue)
    Qingbai (Clear Blue)
    Porcelain Vase with
    Chinese Boy and Arabesques
  • Qingbai (Clear Blue)
    Qingbai(Clear Blue)
    Porcelain Sutra Containe

Now, let's compare the Seto Jar with Four Lugs in Ash Glaze and Vase with Incised Flowers in Iron Glaze to the Qingbai (Clear Blue) Porcelain Jar with Four Lugs and Qingbai (Clear Blue) Porcelain Vase with Chinese Boy and Arabesques.

  • Seto Jar with Four Lugs
    in Ash Glaze
  • Vase with Incised Flowers in Iron Glaze
    Vase with Incised Flowers in Iron Glaze
    Tokyo National Museum

Their overall shapes are very similar. Although the first two works were considered to be of extremely high quality as far as ceramics made in Japan were concerned, here we can clearly see that Seto ware imitated Chinese ceramics. In this way, such Chinese examples as the Porcelain Jar and Porcelain Vase reveal how popular they were in Japan.

However, for imitations, Seto ware show considerable differences from their Chinese originals. This is in part because of differences in material and technique, but it seems that the Seto ceramicists purposely used a brown-colored glaze instead of blue glaze to make them different. Even the stamped motifs that were impressed on Seto jars are rarely found on Chinese ceramics from those days. Somehow it seems that the Seto ceramicists, while imitating Chinese ware, strongly displayed their own style.

Although the price of Chinese ceramics was most likely higher than Seto ware during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What is considered beautiful differs from person to person and changes from period to period. What do you think?

Text by Yoshihiro Ono, Department of Applied Arts

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