Japan is a well-wooded country, and wood has always been used there for domestic utensils of all kinds, either in a natural state or lacquered. Until recent times, pottery and porcelain were not employed extensively for general domestic use but were reserved for such special purposes as the tea ceremony. In pottery the Japanese especially admire accidental effects that resemble natural forms. Objects that appear misshapen and glazes that exhibit what would usually be regarded as serious imperfections in the West are admired by the Japanese connoisseur. The Japanese potter liked to reveal the impress of the hand that made the object. Marks, such as the ridges left by the fingers in a newly thrown vessel, were frequently accentuated instead of being obliterated, and marks made by tools were often left untouched.
Hand modeling was practiced long after the wheel was known, and asymmetries and irregularities of form were purposely sought. Similar accidental effects were encouraged in glazing: coloured glazes were allowed to run in streaks and were irregularly applied. They were often thick, with many bubbles and with a semifluid or treacly appearance. Crackled glazes and those deeply fissured (the latter called dragon skin or lizard skin) were deliberately induced. Painted decoration, frequently blue, brown, or iron red, is often summary and almost calligraphic in its simplicity. The aim was to give an overall effect that resembled such natural objects as stones, in being largely uncontrived.
From the 15th century onward, the art of the potter was also affected by the elaborate tea ceremony (the chanoyu). In its original form it was probably introduced from China by Chan (Zen) priests, but at the court of the shogun Yoshimasa (1435–90), in Kyōto, it developed into a fixed ceremonial pattern. Possibly the ceremony was first exploited as a means of settling feudal disputes. It is held in a small room or pavilion, usually surrounded by a carefully designed garden. When the guests are summoned, they enter a sparsely furnished room through a very low doorway. The fact that guests must crawl into the room is thought to have served the purpose of preventing them from concealing a sword under their robes.
In a recess called the tokonoma, a picture mounted on brocade or silk is hung, and the guests bow to this in appreciation. The tea master puts a little powdered tea in a bowl and pours on it water that has been heated over a charcoal brazier. The tea is whipped to a froth with a bamboo whisk and then passed from hand to hand. The various utensils—the tea bowl, tea caddy, water container, boxes, plates, and iron tea kettle—have been carefully selected by the tea master and are often of great age. The tea drinking is followed by a discussion and appreciation of the qualities of the utensils. The bowls are valued for their heat-retaining properties and the way in which they fit the hand as well as for their appearance. Sometimes a newly acquired work of art is produced by the host for the delectation of the guests. Since the tea masters were the aesthetic arbiters, their influence on Japanese pottery was profound.
The early history of Japan is considerably more obscure than that of China. The first Japanese pottery belongs to the Jōmon period (dated tentatively as c. 10,500–c. 300 bce). It has a black body, and the decoration is usually an impressed representation of coiled rope or matting (jōmon means “coiled”). Jōmon-shiki (“coiled pottery”) is widely distributed throughout the islands, but complete specimens are very rare. It was followed by Yayoi pottery, specimens of which have been excavated throughout Japan. The body is somewhat finer in quality than Jōmon pottery and is usually red or gray. Decoration is simple, and forms will sometimes show the influence of Korean pottery of the period. It ceased to be produced about the 6th century ce.
Meanwhile, from about the 3rd to the 6th century ce, large tombs were constructed in the form of oval or circular tumuli from whose bases have been recovered the haniwa (“clay circle”) figures of warriors, women, horses, and so forth. They are hollow, and, though vigorously modeled, they are more primitive than analogous tomb figures from China.
In the Asuka or Sueki period (552–710 ce) that followed, wares are much more sophisticated. Unlike the preceding types, they were made with a wheel, and firing took place in a rudimentary kiln at a much higher temperature than previously. Widespread manufacture continued through the Nara period (710–794) and the early part of the following Heian, or Fujiwara, period (794–1185). Some examples have a smear glaze, no doubt at first caused accidentally by wood ashes coming into contact with the surface. Three colours of glaze—green, yellowish brown, and white—were used either alone or in combination and resemble those of Tang earthenware (see Chinese pottery). Pottery of this kind has been found around Ōsaka and Kyōto. Vases, dishes, bowls, and bottles of various descriptions were the principal types of pottery produced during this period. The influence of Korea and of Tang China is noticeable. Toward the end of the Heian period, contacts with China were severed, and there was a corresponding decline in the art of pottery; even the traditional Sueki ware disappeared.