Coffee Culture, Japan Style: Tracing the History of Japanese Porcelain Exports

Books History Culture

The coffee cup is a quintessential part of café culture and the Western dining experience. A new book traces the history of Japanese porcelain through notable brands exported from Japan, mainly to the United States, in the late nineteenth century and brings to life the businessmen, ceramicists, painters, and collectors involved in the trade.

Western-Style Tableware Born in Japan

Noritake Garden is located in Noritake-Shinmachi, in Nagoya’s Nishi-ku district, on the site where the original buildings of the company now known as Noritake Co., Ltd. first began manufacturing tableware in 1904. The complex of red brick buildings includes the original factory, a gallery, and restaurants.

To mark the 120th anniversary of the company, the Noritake Museum is holding an exhibition called “The Story of Japanese Western-Style Tableware: One Hundred Twenty Years of History,” which will be on view until December 25, 2024.

The Noritake Museum exhibition showcases the history of the company’s tableware. (© Izumi Nobumichi)
The Noritake Museum exhibition showcases the history of the company’s tableware. (© Izumi Nobumichi)

Much of Itani Yoshie’s 2023 Nippon kōhī kappu monogatari (The Story of Japanese Coffee Cups) discusses the same history that is covered in this exhibition. As the book focuses on coffee cups that were produced for the export market, it includes descriptions and photographs of a wide range of dishes, the techniques used to make them, and their various distinguishing features. Not surprisingly, it includes many made by the storied producer Noritake. The shapes and designs of coffee cups bound for export served as models for European ceramicists and were a favorite of American collectors who were the main customers in the Japanese tableware export market. The book includes vivid portraits of around a hundred individuals involved in their design, production, and trade.

The Korean Founder of Arita Ware

The most popular type of Western tableware outside Japan was porcelain, which is known for its hardness and low permeability. The first place in Japan where porcelain was produced is a town in Saga Prefecture called Arita. The book describes how Japanese porcelain production got its start when Japanese daimyō brought Korean potters to Japan during the invasion of Korea that began in 1592. In 1616 one of these Korean potters by the name of Yi Sam-pyeong (who also went by the Japanese name of Kanagae Sanbē) discovered porcelain clay at Izumiyama in Arita and successfully fired it.

As he was the first person to find the material needed to manufacture porcelain in the wake of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea, he is known as the founder of Arita-yaki, or Arita ware, which now boasts a history four centuries long. And Izumiyama Quarry, where he first discovered the priceless clay, is a nationally designated historical site.

The origin of Arita ware is the Izumiyama Quarry, shown above, where porcelain clay was first discovered in the early seventeenth century. (© Izumi Nobumichi)
The origin of Arita ware is the Izumiyama Quarry, shown above, where porcelain clay was first discovered in the early seventeenth century. (© Izumi Nobumichi)

In the book, Gottfried Wagener, a German, is portrayed as being involved in the development of the Japanese porcelain trade at its inception in the nineteenth century. He first visited Japan in 1868, the first year of the Meiji era. He trained students in Arita in the industrial technologies involved in porcelain production and taught at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which at the time was known as the Tokyo Vocational School. Wagener advocated for a “uniquely Japanese style” rather than simply copying Western examples.

Fukuzawa Yukichi and US-bound Exports

The book notes that after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, “with the support of the Meiji government, which had a strong desire to acquire foreign currency, the export porcelain industry developed with astonishing speed.” While Arita ware is the best-known Japanese porcelain, the center of porcelain production soon shifted to Nagoya and its Seto ware and Mino ware, which became major exports. It was this shift that led to the founding of Noritake.

Noritake traces its origin to a trading company known as the Morimura-gumi, founded in Tokyo’s Ginza in 1876 by Morimura Ichizaemon, the sixth in a line of government merchants, and his stepbrother Toyo. Toyo established Morimura Brothers on Sixth Avenue in New York City as the company’s foothold in the United States for its export business.

The idea for Ichizaemon’s trade business came from advice he received from Fukuzawa Yukichi. As the trade business expanded after the opening of Japan, the country’s currency began moving abroad. In a discussion about this problem, Fukuzawa told him that “the only way to get our money back is by exporting.”

Japanese antiques, as well as Seto ware and other types of porcelain, were very popular in the US market. Ōkura Magobē, Ichizaemon’s brother-in-law, and his son Kazuchika founded Noritake in Nagoya in order to manufacture Western-style tableware for Morimura-gumi, which was about to enter the export trade in that commodity. In 1919 Magobē and Kazuchika also founded Ōkura Art China in Kamata, Tokyo, as a manufacturer of high-end Western-style tableware.

Renewed Interest in the US as Antiques

Although exports of Japanese Western-style tableware were suspended at the outbreak of the Pacific War, the book points out that in the 1960s, Japanese tableware held upwards of 70% of the US market. While the Japanese domestic market also experienced a boom in Western-style tableware after World War II, with the end of the Japanese “bubble economy” in the early 1990s, Itani notes, demand for both home and commercial-use products declined, and to this day there are no signs that sales will recover.

Since the 1970s some of the porcelain pieces previously exported from Japan have been known as “Old Noritake” in the United States, where their artistry has undergone reassessment. According to a Noritake Museum publication, Old Noritake is defined as “a generic term for porcelain manufactured and sold by Morimura-gumi and Nippon Tōki, predecessor of Noritake, from the mid-Meiji era (late nineteenth century) to the end of World War II.”

Some unusual examples of “Old Noritake” on exhibition at the Noritake Museum. (© Izumi Nobumichi)
Some unusual examples of “Old Noritake” on exhibition at the Noritake Museum. (© Izumi Nobumichi)

The book credits Howard Kottler (1930–89), a potter and professor at the University of Washington, as the person who first identified the artistic value of Old Noritake. Old Noritake became widely known as a result of an exhibition of the “Kottler Collection” of porcelain pieces held in the United States in 1982.

Around 150 years have passed since the first coffee cups were made during the Meiji era by Japanese craftsmen who had—ironically—never tasted coffee. Nagasaki native Tei Eihō (Zheng Yongqing) opened Japan’s first kissaten (coffee shop), an establishment by the name of “Kahisakan,” in Ueno, Tokyo in 1888. While the production and export of Western-style tableware had its ups and downs over the years, they also contributed to the development of Western cuisine and coffee shop culture in Japan.

Itani’s book closes with the observation that Japanese coffee cups embody a century and a half of history during which Japanese overcame hardships and forged a path forward.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The cover of Nippon kōhī kappu monogatari. Courtesy Inahoshobō.)

Nippon kōhī kappu monogatari (The Story of Japanese Coffee Cups)

By Itani Yoshie
Published by Inaho Shobō in November 2023
ISBN: 978-4-434-33094-0

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