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Japan and Korea’s culture are very distinct from each other despite having miniscule similarities. In women’s traditional clothing essentials, the Japanese kimono and Korean hanbok may appear similar to the untrained eye in terms of appearance but once looked at a little longer, the viewer will find that their differences are actually quite striking. The same goes for both Japanese and Korean pottery. Japanese and Korean pottery may appear similar to some, but their purpose, the materials used, and their cultural significance are quite different from each other.

Pottery is the process of molding clay into vessels. It comes in different shapes and sizes, some of which hold a special meaning or only to be used for a special ceremony. After the shape has been formed, it will be exposed to very high temperatures so that a hard and durable form will be achieved. Three major kinds of pottery are earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. With so many countries having different pottery forms, techniques, and trademark styles of pottery known today, what makes Japanese and Korean pottery distinctive?

Japanese Pottery

In Japan, pottery was traditionally used for special occasions such as conducting a tea ceremony. And unlike in many other pottery makers, Japanese pottery celebrates imperfections found in its pieces. Mere accidental bumps, incisions, marks left by the fingers of the maker, marks by tools, and irregularly applied and often runny or cracked glazes are left as is for it is sought after by many pottery collectors. Irregularities and asymmetrical forms are quite common in Japanese pottery.

The earliest recorded Japanese pottery is called Jōmon-shiki. It is a black piece and is decorated with coil patterns. Next is Yayoi pottery and unlike Jōmon-shiki, it is made in a finer quality and is typically colored red or gray. By the Asuka period, Japanese pottery started to get much more sophisticated and are mass produced. Pottery from this period are observed to have smeared glazes which most likely came from wood ashes that accidentally made contact with the piece. The common forms of Japanese pottery in this era were vases, bowls, and bottles.

In the Kamakura period, there emerged a large manufacturer of Japanese pottery whose signature style is to glaze the pieces with black. These were initially made for rituals but soon, pieces for everyday household use were also produced during the Muromachi period. The glaze found in this pieces often run in rivulets and is yellow or brown in color. Unglazed stoneware is soon produced but the Japanese pottery pieces made for Buddhist ceremonies from the Seto period are regarded as the finest pieces in this period.

The Shikagari storage jar is a large, imposing piece from the Muromachi period. Its rough and uneven shape indicates that it was coil-built, and the ridges in the form suggest that it was built in several stages. The natural ash glaze is deliberately applied in a haphazard manner to create a natural, rustic feel to the piece in general. The almost exaggerated imperfection of the piece speaks of the tea house and Zen ideals in the Japanese culture during this time period.

Granted, the influence of the tea culture infiltrated so much of the Japanese aesthetic that it is difficult to determine whether these pieces reflect a genuine attempt at individual expression, or if the imperfections are somewhat exaggerated to create an idea of individuality while still being somewhat mass-produced. Since Shigaraki is hand-built, it seems unlikely that there was any substantial mass-production intended for it, at least not with the idea of producing identical pieces. Not only that, but, as pointed out previously, the ridges and imperfections in the shape point to it being built over time in several stages. It seems logical to assume that the extra time and care spent on such a piece would indicate a more intimate relationship and detailed thought process for the potter who created it.

Between 1592 and 1598, the Japanese have invaded Korea. Korean pottery was looted and along with it the Japanese took the Korean potters themselves. This resulted to a dramatic improvement of Japanese pottery. There emerged a wide variety of new styles of pottery like painted pottery, speckled pottery, thick opaque glazes, and white glazes. Lead glazed ware were also said to be produced by a Korean potter in Japan during this time.

Then in the 16th century, porcelain was made for the first time in Japan using techniques from Korea. At first it was simple-looking, sporting the typical blue and white appearance of porcelain pieces. But soon, a wide array of magnificent styles was produced and is known for its refined motifs. Japanese then started to create square or octagonal pieces with red, bluish green, yellow, and blue glazes with the occasional gilding. Japanese porcelain is known to be rich in color.

Korean Pottery

Korean pottery’s distinctive feature is its ode to nature. If decorated, a piece of Korean pottery will have motifs of nature on it and sometimes a trace of the country’s religious heritage. The history of pottery in Korea goes way back to the Neolithic period where simple brown pots were often incised with zigzags using comb-like tool or pinched with fingers for embossed decorations. In the Bronze Age, Korean pottery have thicker walls, most are undecorated, and now have different forms aside from pots. And then the Korean potters started to experiment and try making pottery employing different styles, forms, and materials.

This set forth the finer vessels that were to come in the era of Unified Silla. Earlier, the only shapes the potters of Korea were making aside from pots and jars were steamers, bowls with pedestals, and jars with handles (Cartwright, 2016). Soon after the experimenting of the Korean potters, other forms like stemmed or lidded cups, stands used to support large bowls, lamps, long-necked jars, footed vessels, and roof tiles were made. During this time, spouted figure-vessels also emerged. There are ceramics shaped as animals, boats, or temples.

It was in the period of Unified Silla that Korean pottery started to show the influence of Buddhism. Urns for ashes needed to be made. During this time, Korean pottery tended to leave the pottery used for everyday tasks undecorated while the urns to be used for burial are to be decorated with Buddhist motifs like lotus flowers and clouds. It was also during this time that the renowned celadon would start to be produced.

Korean celadon is known to be one of the finest and most elegant pottery pieces produced in the world. Though achieving the coveted blue-green “kingfisher” color may have been a result of individual skill, or a particular kiln’s structure, the pieces seem to reflect more traditional values and tastes of the Korean culture than any individual expression, artistic or otherwise. Clearly, the fact that one particular shade of the glaze is prized over all others shows what little value is placed on individual expression.

Vases and jugs were popular forms for celadon and one of the most popular was the maebyong. The Koryŏ dynasty maebyŏng demonstrates this idea well having the typical shape, and commonly depicted decorations of culturally relevant cranes and clouds. Its nearly perfect condition and placement in the museum itself stands as a testament to the care pieces produced in the “kingfisher” color was given. Also, the smoothness and uniform nature of the basic shape of the piece suggests that the piece was wheel-built, giving the impression of a kiln more interested in mass-production than thoughtful creation.

After the appearance of the highly coveted celadon by Korean aristocrats emerged the practical buncheong wares. Buncheong wares served a practical purpose at home and is mostly made according to the preferences of the people instead of being mass produced. These are mostly decorated by carving, stamping, or painting over the piece. Geometric designs, flowers, cranes, dots, and pairs of fish are the common designs found in this Korean pottery. Then, clay that wasn’t good enough to be used for buncheong pottery was used to make large jars or cooking vessels.

White porcelain gained popularity in the public and in the Korean royals even if they were produced long ago due to the fact that they have been perfected. The white porcelain has been made thinner, whiter, and more durable than Korean’s previous ceramics. White porcelain also introduced many new different forms of Korean pottery like brush holders, epitaph tablets, and moon jars. Koreans also intentionally made their pottery’s shapes asymmetrical to be distinct from other countries’ pottery.

Japanese and Korean Pottery

In these two very different forms and usage of pottery in two very different countries, we see virtual icons of the cultural ideals of both Japan and Korea. In one we see the rustic and bold presence of the Japanese storage jar that could be considered the epitome of the ideals put forward in the tea houses and the tea ceremony itself. The imperfections are laid bare and obvious on a large scale giving the viewer something not only to appreciate, but to admire in its sincerity.

In contrast, the Korean maebyŏng stands testament to the refined atmosphere of the Korean royal family and aristocracy. The artistry, though beautiful and skilled, is not as much a consideration as the idea of the piece as a whole. The appeal of this piece is not the individual expression, but the idiosyncrasy of the glaze to provide the right color given the right conditions.

The decorative elements chosen to adorn the piece are not there as an expression of any individual idea, but instead as a reflection of the beloved ideals that are engrained in Korean traditions. In these two pieces we see how two cultures and time periods can translate the form of an item with an ultimately mundane function into a unique icon of the time and culture in each country.

Japanese and Korean pottery is very different from one another. One holds a very ceremonial meaning while the other leans more toward practicality. Japanese pottery is seen as delicate and sophisticated despite its often rustic and irregular appearance due to their favor towards imperfections. On the other hand, Korean pottery is often regarded as being much more connected with nature and is oozing with tranquility that it is able to uplift the soul. Being vastly different, it is undeniable that the Japanese and Korean pottery’s artistry is very much unique. Upholding both of their country’s rich tradition and cultural identity in a piece so delicate is no easy feat.

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References

Kim, J. (n.d.). Borne form Earth and Fire. Antique Alive. http://www.antiquealive.com/masters/Ceramics/Korean_Pottery.html

Cartwright, M. (2016, October 25). Korean Pottery. From Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/Korean_Pottery/

Savage, G. (2009, October 29). Japanese Pottery. From Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/Japanese-pottery


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