Insight | Japanese Satsuma Ware

Insight | Japanese Satsuma Ware

December 29th 2023

At Jacksons Antique we are partial to a bit of Satsuma wear it is something we personally enjoy and also deal in across our business. It is in our opinion one of the most accessible products to the market due to its range as it comes in many shapes and sizes, quality and price. It is a perfect starting point for any collector with the ability to progress your collection through both experience and value starting at the more accessible pieces and eventually heading towards museum level quality and imperial artist. Below we are going to get into the history of Japanese satsuma, the what, why, when questions and then below we also have inserted an index of artists which we have compiled over many years of collecting.

Japanese Satsuma Vase Dai Nippon Kyoto Tojiki Goshi Kaisha Okamoto Ryozan

Japanese Satsuma Vase Okamoto Ryozan for the Yasuda Company 

Insight | Japanese Satsuma 

Satsuma Ware 薩摩国 (known as Satsuma or Japanese Satsuma generally) is a type of Japanese pottery (not porcelain) that originates from the Satsuma province, southern Kyushu (now the western half of Kagoshima Prefecture on the island of Kyushu). Interestingly most people would recognise Satsuma as a pale ivory coloured earthenware typically with a gold decoration however Satsuma wear can be split into two categories. The original Satsuma wear was potted from plain dark clay (古薩摩 Ko-Satsuma, or directly translated to ‘old satsuma’) and made in Satsuma from around the turn of the 17th century circa 1600. The more recognised Satsuma which was heavily exported making it world renowned having ivory-bodies and often heavily gilded decoration began to be produced in the nineteenth century in various Japanese cities is known as (京薩摩 Kyo-Satsuma, directly translated to… Kyoto Satsuma.)

Ko-Satsuma ware; stoneware with slip and glaze decor

17th Century Eco Period (1603-1868) Ko-Satsuma ware, stoneware with slip and glaze decor

Minneapolis Institute of Art Accession Number 2001.132

Japanese Satsuma Ware was adapted during the 19th century to contain various colours which was more often than not outlined with gilded decoration. This type of wear appealed very much to Weston consumers allowing Japan to create a huge export market for this particular type of Satsuma Ware. The profits made from the export contributed heavily to the funding of the Meiji Period reforms in Japan which began in the second half of the 19th century.

It is believed that Satsuma Ware’s early history dates to the turn of the 17th century with the end of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s (the second “Great Unifier” of Japan) incursions into Korea. The Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598) commonly known as the Imjin War and the Ceramic War. It began when Simazu Yoshihiro (general under Toyotomi Hideyoshi), the seventeenth head of the Satsuma Han, kidnapped more than 80 Korean potters and brought them back to Japan. Potters, including Boku Heii and Kin Kai, who arrived in the towns, Kushikino and Ichiki. The potters then started kilns within the Han domain with each kiln producing a different style of pottery dictated by the environmental conditions of the location and the style of the potters. Five varieties of kilns were eventually established and these were; Naeshirogawa, Tateno, Ryumonji, Nishimochida, and Porcelain. Collectively, they are known as Satsuma ware. Three types: Naeshirogawa, Ryumonji, and Tateno, still remain today. Satsuma ware is separated into two categories with different aspects, Shiro Satsuma (white satsuma) and Kuro Satsuma (black satsuma).

Shimazu Yoshihiro head of the Shimazu clan

Ukiyo-e of Shimazu Yoshihiro from the series Sixty-odd Famous Generals of Japan, woodblock print

The Satsuma region was an excellent source of clay and was in close proximity to the Korean peninsula. Interestingly more recent research suggests that while these potters and others are typically said to have been “kidnapped” or “taken prisoner” narratives put forth by the Chinjukan Museum (the chief museum of this history, run by one of those potter families) itself use much more neutral phrases such as torai (“crossed over to Japan”) and tomonatte kita (“accompanied the Shimazu and came to Japan”).

Satsuma ware dating up to the Genroku period 1688–1704 aka ko-satsuma. Was made from iron-rich dark clay covered in dark glaze. Prior to 1790, pieces were not ornately decorated, but rather simple objects intended for practical everyday use. Due to their basic nature potters added simple flare by using raised relief decoration or stamped and carved shapes.

From around 1800 painted decoration began to flourish known as brocade or 錦手 nishikide in Japanese. This included a palette of iron-red, blue, a form of bluish green, a soft purple black, and a yellow which was used sparingly. A slightly later innovation added painted gilding to the brocade (金錦手, kin nishikide). The multi-coloured enamel overglaze and gold were painted on ivory-bodied pieces with a finely crackled transparent glaze. The decoration was mostly light and simple floral patterns influenced by Kyoto pottery and the Kano school of painting. It was speculated that the Satsuma potters learned overgrazing painting techniques while visiting Kyoto in the late seventeenth century.

In 1867, around the beginning of the Meiji Period the first major representation of Japanese Arts and Culture in view to the West was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Satsuma ware was amongst the predominant items on display after the regions daimyo pushed for a trade relationship with the West in an important economic and political move. This rang true when  Britain offered support to the Daimyo in the 1868 rebellion against the shogunate in a move to keep its connection with the Satsuma trade. The Paris Exposition showcased Satsuma’s ceramics and other wares under Satsuma’s regional banner rather than Japan’s as a sign of the Daimyo’s hostility to the national shogunate (ruler). Following the extremely popular display at the Paris exhibition and its mention in Audsley and Bowes’ Ceramic Art of Japan 1875. The two leading workshops under Boku Seikan and Chin Jukan were joined by a number of others across Japan. At this point the location of Satsuma became the lasting nickname of the pottery ware rather than its geographical location. By 1873 workshops specialising in painting blanks from Satsuma known as etsuke 絵付け began to operate from Kobe and Yokohama. Other areas such as Kutani, Kyoto and Tokyo made their own blanks ending any connection with Satsuma Ware. From the early 1890s through the early 1920s there were more than twenty etsuke factories producing Satsuma ware, as well as a number of small, independent studios producing high-quality pieces.

Japanese Meiji Period Satsuma Sake Pot Suigetsu

Japanese Meiji Period Satsuma Sake Pot with extensive floral Millefleur style decoration to the spout

As Satsuma developed further and the thirst for a booming market producers adapted the nishikide Satsuma model resulting in a flurry of Western influence export pottery which saw the pieces being covered totally. Often models included millefleur (花詰, hanazume) design or one hundred treasures to name a couple. The objects were filled to the entirety leaving very little free space externally known as ‘filled-in painting or 塗りつぶし nuritsubushi in Japanese. In a total transformation from early plain Satsuma ware the newer pieces were painted as if the artists had a fear of leaving any are undecorated. Soon all matters of Japanese beliefs, legends, tales, landscapes and cultural depictions were used to decorated the wares and these also included religious and mythological beliefs. As time continued the colour palette darkened and a generous use of moriage (盛り上げ raised gold) became more prevalent.

Close up of the hundred antique treasures border on the Japanese Satsuma Vase

Japanese Satsuma vase with one hundred treasures style decoration

From 1885 until the end of the Meiji Period and beyond manufacture of Satsuma Ware became so popular that the quality began to diminish at an extraordinary rate with factories mass producing the wares just to be able to export it on a ‘quantity over quality scale’. Soon collectors and critics alike began to criticise both the process and the finished product. and it was negatively received at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. According to art historian Gisela Jahn, “in no other style of ceramics did the Japanese go to such extremes in attempting to appeal to Western tastes, and nowhere else were the detrimental effects of mass production more clearly evident”. However, Satsuma ware remained an extremely popular export commodity into the twentieth century, becoming synonymous with Japanese ceramics throughout the Meiji period. Satsuma ware continued to be mass-produced through the modern period, though quality declined to the point where it eventually lost interest for consumers.

Interestingly throughout the Meiji Period although as a generalisation Satsuma Ware quality declined there were multiple prominent artists and manufactures that held an extremely high standard of output, those of which are extremely sought after in the collectors market today. Some prominent artists include Kinkozan Sobei VI 錦光山宗兵衛 (1824–1884), Kinkozan Sobei VII 錦光山宗兵衛 (1867–1927), Ryozan 亮山, Taizan Yohei IX 帯山与兵衛 (1856–1922) and Yabu Meizan 藪明山 (1853–1934) to name a few.

Side Angle of the Japanese Meiji Period Satsuma Natsume (Tea Caddy) by Kinkozan

Japanese Meiji Period Natsume (Tea Caddy) Signed Kinkozan 


Other notable information

Shimazu crest a mark that appears on a large portion of all Satsuma ware Many pieces of Satsuma ware regardless of age, maker/manufacture or artist feature the family crest (kamon) of Satsuma’s ruling Shimazu clan a simple design featuring a cross within a circle. It can be found placed typically on the base of the piece around any signatures or stamps and very occasionally within the body of the piece in the decoration. Permisson to use the family crest of the Shimazu family on pottery was originally a form of appreciation and encouragement that the Daimyo could attribute to the potter. This early mark was always painted in gosu blue. After the shogunate was abolished and consequently no relation existed  between the production of pottery and the daimyo, the mark was frequently used as a trademark only indicated it was of satsuma style. A mon that is depicted in black, gold or red has no relationship with the Shimazu family and always dates from a period after Edo (1603-1868).

Early Example of a Gosu Blue Shimazu crest from our Archives

Great Japan often pieces throughout the Meiji Period contained a larger ‘signature’ to the base which often incorporated the Dai Nippon (大日本 Great Japan) mark as an indication of their place of origin during a period of fomenting nationalism. These characters often appear immediately to the right of the maker’s mark.

Satsuma Yaki another mark often found along side the artists/manufactures signature or on its own is the Satsuma Yaki mark. Satsuma 薩摩, 薩摩焼, Satsuma-yaki (Satsuma wear) indicated the piece is Satsuma.

Kyoto 京都 usually followed by a makers name indicating its origin.

Created by, Made, Manufactured, Produced by common marks often found along side the makers mark which all translate to roughly the same meaning such as ‘made by Kinkozan’ or ‘Produced by Seikozan’ the characters vary slightly however the majority are   – Sei, – Zo, 製造 – Sei Zo, – Ko, – Sa / Saku /Tsukuru.

Numbering often found on mass produced wares and/or a limited production or set such as vase number 1,2,3,4 and so on. Ichi (1),  Ni (2). San (3), Shi (4) (also Yon = 4th) Go (5), Roku (6), Shichi (7), Hachi (8), Ku /kyu (9), Ju (10), Hyaku (100), Sen (1000), Man (10000).

Workshops/studios

  • Choshuzan Kyoto workshop active in late Meiji period specializing in dragon ware
  • Fuzan workshop active in Meiji period
  • Gyozan Kyoto studio active in Meiji period
  • Kinkozan active 1645–1927 and overseen by Kinkozan Sobei. The Kinkozan workshop is probably the most well known satsuma manufacture in the world, they exported heavily from 1875 especially to America and were the largest overall producer of Satsuma export ware. Their products range from mass produced to extremely high end depending on the artists.
  • Koshida factory active c. 1880–1927; resumed production after 1945
  • Maruni Kobe manufacturer active until 1938
  • Taizan/Obi-ya family-run Kyoto kiln active c. 1673–1922; began exporting in 1872, especially to America
  • Yasuda Kyoto-based company formally known as Yasuda Kyoto Tokiji Goshigaisha, active in Meiji period. Yasuda typically employed highly skilled artists to decorate their objects leading to an extremely popular collectors market for Yasuda marked pieces.

These workshops were among many others around Japan that specialised in the production and export of Japanese Satsuma Ware.

Close up of a Yabu Meizan Vase from our Archives