Eggshell Porcelain Ware
Many museums in Europe preserve the eggshell porcelain ware produced in Mikawachi, Hirado. It can be inferred that the product was highly appreciated in Europe from this fact. The eggshell porcelain is extremely thin and light-weight pure white porcelain ware whose painted decorations on the front surface are seen through the back face. The lightness allows us to scarcely feel the weight.
In the late Edo period (early 1800s), the Mikawachi purveying kilns to the feudal government received an order from the Hirado feudal lord to fire the extremely thin and highest quality porcelain ware. The ware was weightless and looked like the eggshell and thereby was named “eggshell” overseas.
The production of eggshell porcelain required sophisticated techniques. Only a few master potters were capable of this using special materials such as Ajiro pottery stone mined in Hirado domain. The eggshell porcelain attracted attention from the Dutch who came to Dejima in Nagasaki, which was then Japan’s only trading site with Dutch traders, and became a highest-grade trading item. The porcelain ware produced at that time was the first coffee cups made in Japan, and it was recorded that it pioneered in foreign trade. The eggshell porcelain ware was exhibited in world expositions in the Meiji period (1868-1912), and masterpieces are housed in museums in the U.S. and Europe today.
Export of Eggshell Porcelain Ware: Background
Export of the eggshell porcelain ware began around 1830s. The Hirado feudal government developed a system to actively export Hirado ware and established a trading office for Hirado ware in Nagasaki to manage the business from order reception for export to sales. The trading office was not a single organization but a function in the Hirado government to be in charge of exporting business.
Hirado eggshell porcelain ware was in high demand in Europe as a top-selling import item. Times, an English quality paper, published the first article about the eggshell porcelain in 1845, and the newspaper frequently covered it afterwards.
Some travel journals written by foreign visitors to Japan towards the end of Edo period allow us to know the actual demand for and recognition of eggshell porcelain ware in Europe. The journals describe that the writers saw or purchased the ware when they visited Nagasaki. From those facts, we can learn the eggshell porcelain ware made in Japan was widely recognized in Europe and its excellent quality was highly praised by Europeans.
Eggshell Porcelain Ware Today
As time passed, fewer potters who produced eggshell porcelain ware remained due to a change in demand, and the production methods were eventually lost around 1900.
Pieces of paper-thin eggshell porcelain ware handed down in the Fujimoto family motivated young Hirado Tousyo the 13th to restore the production methods. He started with researches on ancient documents that Matsura family of lord Hirado retained but the methods were not recorded because they were never allowed to be passed down excepting the potter families in Mikawachi. Fujimoto searched the ways to restore the lost production and asked aged potters to remember old days in Mikawachi for the methods.
Not to mention the techniques, materials were key elements for production. Ajiro pottery stone, one of the materials and a secret for the production, was not mined any longer. Fujimoto made an official application to obtain a permission for mining and researched with some experts, and finally he located the old mining site in a cave on Hario Island, where his predecessors mined the stone. Blending porcelain clay made out of Ajiro stone enhances plasticity and makes porcelain stronger to prevent the wares from breaking easily, which enables its paper-thin bodies.
The eggshell porcelain ware is formed by hand throwing on a wheel and then trimmed until the body becomes thin. Checking the thinness with penetrating light is necessary for this trimming process. The ancient records describe that the potters in Edo period used candle light to check thinness of the bodies while they were trimming the eggshell porcelain ware.
In 2006, Fujimoto succeeded in recreation of eggshell porcelain ware for the first time since the last piece had been fired 100 years ago. In Mikawachi, kiln owners have inherited production techniques and skills from generation to generation and made efforts and challenges to increase awareness of Mikawachi ware, both domestically and internationally, through successor training programs, participation in exhibitions and development in new technologies and designs.