Japanese Cloisonné Ginger Jar

The end of the Edo Period, ca. 1870
11¾” h. x 9” w. d.

This jar is quite rare. It was probably produced towards the end of the Edo period when a handful of pioneer cloisonné artists, followers of Kaji Tsunekichi (1803-1883), started to make large cloisonne in-the-round. It was Kaji, trained as a samurai, who was credited with the incarnation of Japanese cloisonné production. His early pieces were of very small copies of Ming ware, fashioned for the shoguns and daimyos (feudal lords). They were confined to flat decorations for sword furniture and architectural details. In 1838, Kaji made his first attempt to make a free-standing, in- the- round vessel, using Chinese Ming style pieces as his model, with designs flowing around the entire piece. His success ushered in the era of large cloisonné wares in Japan.

Early Japanese enamel pieces were made on thin bronze or copper bodies. They have a matte finish, and often rough or bumpy glazes, blurry patterns and muddy colors. This is because Japan, then, was not a glass-producing country. Suitable material was not easily available for enamel work. Some experimenting with glass paste technique had to be done before cloisonné could be successfully produced. Artisans used crushed and refined color glass or the kind that was traditionally used in ceramic wares. This practice resulted in a poor luster that is further reduced when the piece was burnished with a stone after firing. A further problem occurred with the metal used in casting the body. Bronze was generally used in the early period. Bronze contains gas bubbles, which escaped during the firing process, causing a lot of pits to be form, damaging the enamel. Copper eventually replaced bronze in enamel-making and is less affected by this problem. The jar shown here, being made of bronze or brass, displays many of the defects of early enamel-making. However, the finished product is a very refined piece of work. On the outside, the craftsmen, to attain delicacy of design and minimize the harsh separation of the cloisonné, used hammered wires as fine as hair and worked them into intricate patterns. The enamel colors, though lacking in luster, appear very soft and easy on the eyes.

The decoration on this jar is quite rare. The artisan made an attempt to capture on an early free-standing piece in enamel painting a scene composing of mountains and lakes with sail boats, rock formations, flowering trees, pagodas and houses often found in Ming as well as Japanese traditional scroll paintings. The soft mustard yellow, known as Ming Yellow, a Chinese imperial color, was used to indicate a sunny sky in which float stylized clouds known to be Japanese (elaborately formed pattern, often with two or more colors). Incorporated into the complicated design are many motifs the Japanese favor: The pine, willow, maple, kelp, prunus and paulownia flowers. Another indication that this is a Japanese piece is the painted Rising Sun on the side of the mansion, a design found on a Japanese flag. The “Shou” (long life) design on the top of the lid is a carry-over from the Chinese. The “Great Ming” mark at the bottom of the jar is always construed as a fake mark on Japanese early period cloisonné, put there not intended to be the date of making, but perhaps by pupils of Kaji who admired and so copied old Ming models. The pagoda and mansion on the jar might be representing the Nagoya Castle, the lake, Lake Hakone, and the mountain, Mt. Fuji. It was in the Nagoya area that the reincarnation of Japanese cloisonné first started. There were no more than ten to twenty pioneers making cloisonné when the Early –period came to an end, thus we think this transitional piece is quite rare.