Nabeshima Ware



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Nabeshima Ware

Nabeshima ware is an exquisite and prestigious specially made porcelain produced at the nabeshima domain kiln in okawachiyama under the patronage of the nabeshima clan of the saga domain in hizen province. This porcelain produced by the nabeshima domain kiln, the only kiln in japan controlled by a clan, is a world class masterpiece of porcelain, far superior to old-kakiemon in its technical mastery, and has established an extremely high reputation. It is no exaggeration to say that the highest quality pieces are on par with those produced by the jingdezhen imperial kiln in china. By offering nabeshima ware to the tokugawa shogunate in edo, the nabeshima clan demonstrated its loyalty and obedience. They were also given outside the domain to maintain friendly relations with other feudal lords. Nabeshima ware, unlike imari ware, was not intended for sale but rather as a gift to neighboring regions, so its producers gave no regard to profitability. It is also noteworthy that these kilns did not follow the convention of producing vessels for tea ceremonies, as most clans’ kilns did, but instead focused on practical works, mainly dishes. In the hizen region, pottery production areas were called “Yama”. In the nabeshima domain, the kiln used by the offerings were to fire pottery was called “Odougu-Yama(Nabeshima Domain Kiln)”. These kilns were also called “Tome-Yama”, which means the lord’s kiln, to show the utmost respect. In the nabeshima domain kiln, the most skillful craftsmen from other kilns in hizen province were called in to establish the nabeshima clan’s unique style of kilns under strict control and in an environment separated from other kilns. According to records from the end of the edo period, 31 potters produced 5,031 pieces per year. These kilns took strict precautions to prevent secret techniques from leaking, such as setting up gates at the entrances and exits and prohibiting the passage of unauthorized visitors. Records tell us that all craftsmen working here were allowed to have family names and carry swords and were exempt from paying any public fees. To reach the site of nabeshima domain kiln, which is about 5km north in a straight line from the center of arita town, one has to take a long detour, which is more than 8km long. Such an environment sufficiently isolated the nabeshima domain kiln from the outside. Production was modeled after the jingdezhen kiln in china, with a division of labor by specialty, where each craftsman did his best. Even a single dish went through the hands of many craftsmen. It is said that extra pieces were made in case of breakage during transportation and that 20 pieces were offered at a time. In the peak period, the kilns consolidated the most sophisticated techniques and methods. Blue and white, celadon are also well known, but the most famous was “Iro-Nabeshima”. Iro-nabeshima is outlined in paint, glazed with transparent glaze, fired at high temperature(blue and white), and overglazed within its frame with the primary colors of red, green, and yellow. This technique was based on the “Tousai” of the chenghua era(1465-87)of china’s ming dynasty. Because these works came from jingdezhen imperial kiln, the kilns could create highly sophisticated works without sparing any effort or regard for profit. The designs reflect japanese taste, departing from their chinese and korean influences, and feature unique and sophisticated designs centering on plants from the natural world. These works also draw inspiration from landscape paintings, noh costumes, and momoyama-edo period paintings. A typical vessel of this type is “Mokuhai-gata”. It features a high kodai(the bottom part that supports the vessel)made with a potter’s wheel. Kodai are thought to have taller bases than regular works from arita kilns to show their prestige. Many kodai works have a unique design called “Kushiba-mon(the comb teeth)” around the outer surface painted using blue and white. Generally, this technique was only allowed for the nabeshima domain kiln at that time and strictly forbidden in other kilns. In the peak period, these works employed a meticulous technique of painting inside the outlines drawn using blue and white. However, as time went on, the lines gradually became longer and the brushstrokes more disorganized, and a trend toward simplified, single line outlines gradually emerged. The works underwent several rigorous inspections by officers, and only those that passed were delivered to the clan, while any remaining rejected works were destroyed. The nabeshima domain kiln was dismantled in 1871 with the abolition of feudal domains and establishment of prefectures.

Incipient-Nabeshima of the Iwayagawachi Domain Kiln

Katsushige Nabeshima, the first lord of the saga domain in hizen province, was on the anti-tokugawa(western)side in the battle of sekigahara and offered imported chinese porcelain to the shogunate to restore relations. As a result of the civil war between the ming and qing dynasties in 1644, which made it difficult to import chinese porcelain, there was an urgent need to develop unique porcelain suitable for tribute to the shogunate. It is speculated that the iwayagawachi domain kiln in arita were ordered to accomplish the task. The third shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa, personally inspected these prototypes in 1651, and as a result, nabeshima ware is thought to have been offered to the shogunate every year. Irregular shaped dishes, classified as “Matsugatanide” can be presumed to be examples of incipient-nabeshima made at the iwayagawachi domain kiln. The design on the reverse side and the inside of the kodai supporting the vessel are left blank and unmarked, and the absence of meato(marks left by stacking vessels for firing)distinguishes this pottery from that of arita’s private kilns. The bottom of the kodai was carefully carved out on three sides, and it took masterful and outstanding skills to create such thin and deeply engraved kodai. Subsequently, flat kodai with less noticeable corners gradually became more common, and the corners were further rounded off as time went on. Saggar, which were unglazed and fire resistant containers, were essential for firing porcelain without meato and without distorting the porcelain. In the 1650s, some of the higher grade works in the sarugawa kiln were unglazed. At this time, the overglaze enamels method was still in its trial and error phase. Because nabeshima ware was intended to be presented to the shogun, it underwent a transition sensitive to changes in the tokugawa shogunate, which was the absolute power in the japanese feudal system. In 1659, the period of full scale trade with the dutch east india company(VOC)began. Around the 1660s, the prestigious domain kiln was separated from odoguyama in arita and moved to okawachiyama(now imari city), surrounded by steep mountains, where they were better hidden from the public. After this arita-nabeshima period, nabeshima ware was fully established at the nabeshima domain kiln in okawachiyama.


Matsugatanide differs from old-kutani style and is a group of irregular shaped dishes that share some similarities with early-nabeshima(old-nabeshima)forms and glazes. It was once speculated that “Matsugatani ware” was fired in the ogi domain, a subsidiary of the saga domain, and this theory has been advocated mainly by antique porcelain enthusiasts. However, various research findings have revealed that it is not matsugatani ware. Pottery shards with overglaze enamels base matching the matsugatanide tradition have been excavated from the sarugawa kiln in iwayagawachi and are considered to be the work of the nabeshima domain kiln(okawachiyama), which precedes the domain kiln in iwayagawachi(odougu-yama).

Main Characteristics of the Matsugatanide
  • They are bisque firing.
  • They have perfect shapes with no distortions.
  • There are no inscriptions on the reverse side.
  • They are no meato on the inside of the kodai.
  • The bottom of the kodai is carved out on three sides to prevent sand from fusing to the bottom.
  • Most are irregular shaped dishes with a diameter of about 15.0 cm or small, cylindrical sake cups.




The peak-nabeshima was produced in the nabeshima domain kiln in the 1670-1730s. According to a letter issued in 1693 by the clan office in the name of 2th Mitsushige Nabeshima to the bureaucrats in charge of arita sarayama, orders were given to maintain strict control of offerings and strictly adhere to delivery deadlines, create innovative and excellent porcelain by incorporating good designs from wakiyama(a private kiln in arita), rather than always using the same method, prohibit craftsmen from entering the wakiyama area to prevent leakage of techniques from clan owned kilns, destroy defective works within the kiln’s premises, bring in any exceptional craftsmen from the wakiyama area, dismiss any poorly performing craftsmen including those who have worked at the kiln for a long time, etc. This order led to a significant change in the style of nabeshima ware. In fact, if we look at the nabeshima ware designs from this period, we can see many that were used for a long time in the privately owned kilns of arita. The technique of painting the kodai, which is the base supporting the vessel, in a manner reminiscent of the comb teeth, was also used in wakiyama in the 1640-1650s in places such as the sarugawa kiln, etc. It can be said that the technique perfected in the kakiemon kiln, nangawara, kamanotsuji, etc. Appeared in a refined form in the peak-nabeshima, such as the technique of painting the inside of the outline in a blurred manner. Nabeshima ware, with its primary focus on pictorial designs and the introduction of techniques such as leaving the center blank, achieved unparalleled precision and perfection and was the pinnacle of japanese porcelain. Many of the typical iro-nabeshima are from this period that produced many technically demanding large dishes. The curves of the dish are also well proportioned and superbly balanced. The fact that kodai was more expensive than ordinary arita private kilns was meant to create a sense of prestige, and the design on the reverse side was mostly a combination of vertical lines in the shape of comb teeth and shippo design. Some rare works even gold color.







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