The Beauty of Japanese Glass

Satsuma kiriko copper red overlay glass bowl with cross design, Edo period, 1846-1863, height 7.7 cm, mouth diameter 11.3 cm

By Yvonne Tan

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the Miho Museum in Shigaraki, Japan is hosting this special exhibition of Japanese glass from the Bindeisha Vidro-Diamante Glass Museum of Matsuyama, Shikoku founded by Daito Norisato in 2011. Glass-making was in its infancy during the Edo-period (1615-1868) and because specimens are relatively rare, Mr åDaito spent a lifetime assembling his collection to represent ‘the most beautiful glass in the field’. The 180 objects on show attest to the superb craftsmanship and technical virtuosity of Edo and Meiji era (1868-1912) artisans who mastered a foreign form and made it uniquely their own.

In the 16th century, Japan’s first encounters with the West introduced the Christian faith and missionary activity as well as the fruits of European material culture. The Portuguese, who were the first to reach the country around 1542, subsequently brought items made of glass, a material both unique and ‘foreign’, and altogether a novelty. In 1549, the Jesuit Francis Xavier was said to have presented mirrors and telescopes to the Kyushu daimyo, Ouchi Yoshitaka. They were universally admired. Indeed, the Japanese terms of reference for glass, biidoro, was derived from the Portuguese vidro. The material soon became a luxury item prompting the first exercises in glass-making learnt from Chinese texts.

Until this time Japanese exposure to glass had been limited. Archaeological excavations suggest the earliest glass shards found in the archipelago are traceable to the Yayoi period (300BC-AD300). Glass beads began circulating from the 1st century onwards. Glass began to have sacred connotations and was generally associated with religion. The first – historical – glass objects that appeared in the Nara period (710-794) however came from Sassanian Persia (224-651) via the Silk Road.

The fascination with glass continued under Tokugawa Japan (1615-1868). Although the country embarked on a policy of isolation from 1639 to 1853, it had a conduit to the outside world: The Dutch East India Company, the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), the sole official European trading body allowed to establish a factory on Dejima island in Nagasaki harbour. The VOC introduced products of superior technology and medicine, indicating the advances made by the scientific and technological revolution taking place in the West. They provoked an enthusiastic reaction when distributed via Nagasaki to the rest of the archipelago: A concerted Japanese effort to master Western scientific knowledge in general, known by the term Rangaku, ‘Dutch learning’ (ran from Oranda, ‘Holland’, and gaku, ‘scholarship’) as well as the ‘horizonal language’ of Dutch.

The Dutch brought lead glass. It was often diamond-point engraved and called diamanté, which was transliterated as the Japanese giyaman. European glass seen in the factory in Dejima was much coveted; it came in an assortment of shapes, including decanters, goblets, mirrors and window panes. VOC records suggest Japanese requests for ‘Western things’ began as early as 1648 and that glass was among three items including clocks and artillery, that were routinely imported.

Attempts at imitation soon followed. In 1713, the first article on glassmaking techniques appeared in an Osaka encyclopaedia. The policy of isolation however included a ban on foreign books, depriving the Japanese of basic knowledge of Western technology. The shogun Yoshimune, a reformer, lifted the ban in 1720 by instituting the Kyoho (1716-1736) reforms, thereby giving the country access to new ‘foreign’ ideas.

Small quantities of biidoro began to be produced in Nagasaki, the country’s window to the West. The few records available suggest associations of glass-making artisans worked on a small scale. They heralded the beginnings of a fledgling craft industry, scholarship of which is compounded by the lack of dating and documentation. From the outset artisans were keen to develop their expertise in ways distinct from Western practice, honing their skills to a native spirit and aesthetic. By mixing lead, ground white stone and saltpeter (potassium nitrate), they created viscous masses that were melted down by high temperatures of charcoal fires burning in kilns. Creating raw glass was a discipline requiring considerable technical skill. It had to be repeated several times; early specimens therefore were small, thin and fragile. Their high lead content however gave Japanese biidoro a unique quality; an undulating surface texture of faint patterns and ripples which appeared when the glass cooled.

One method involved blowing air through a pontil rod into a blob of molten glass. By trial and error, a small number of objects managed to be made, some fashioned after familiar local wares. Successful furasuko, slender-necked sake flasks that imitated their elegant ceramic counterparts were rare and much sought after. Goblets, koppu, took on robust European forms. Another popular method was mould blowing where glass objects were shaped by being blown in a mould. Metal or clay moulds were complex things, but occasionally produced delicate and precise forms such as lobed vessels or tiered boxes with fitted lids. Their surface decoration boasted traditional Japanese floral motifs often engraved by a burin or garnet stone.

A few attempts were directed at commonly known Japanese forms. One near perfect item is a mould-blown three-tiered container produced between 1711-1781: Each layer in green, plain biidoro – with a slight yellow-green tinge – and yellow was of a different height, indicating that they each had its own mould. Their decoration of round dots and petalled flowers, echoed those on ceramic wares.

As they grew more confident, artisans began conducting bold experiments on coloured glass. Due to its iron content, early Japanese biidoro like ancient Roman or mediaeval European glass, usually had a pale yellow-green hue. Colour was added by various colourants and opacifiers to create shades ranging from indigo, purple, green, blue-green, yellow to pale blue and creamy white. Dark blue glass used gosu, a pigment composed primarily of cobalt oxide; a deeper purple shade was attained by melting a manganese oxide-based colourant called ‘purple gosu’. An exceptionally beautiful purple sake flask had been delicately moulded in the form of an irregularly shaped gourd. It was made in imitation of similar ceramic works in the Chinese taste. The undecorated flask which is dated to 1772-1844 is unique and no similar forms have been found.

A green-lidded container with chrysanthemum and water design was also mould-blown and dated to 1711-1781. Its lid has a knob made of a ball of clear glass while its shoulders are decorated with the sayagata, key-fret or swastika motif from Buddhism. The body is encircled by a pattern known as kikusui-mon, of chrysanthemums floating down a stream. This outstanding work, likely produced in Nagasaki, is one of the finest of its kind. A similar object was found in the Sumiya, a luxury entertainment house in Kyoto’s Shimabara area patronised by wealthy clients.

Blue or green glass surfaced from verdigris, copper oxide. European globular forms influenced the making of a blue-green turnip-shaped sake flask dated to between 1772-1844. Its slender neck and round torso are beautifully proportioned, the whole taking the colour and shape of a European wine bottle. It also boasts a pewter stopper. An opaque blue-green flask – achieved by adding tin – is another extremely important work, known for its aesthetic beauty, historical value and craftsmanship. Raw glass demanded substantial capital; small workshops had to source it from different parts of Japan until well into the early Meiji period. The flask’s box carries the trademark, Kami Suwa Kakumamachi Glassworks, Chaya Kahei, indicating its place of manufacture, a glass workshop of Kakumamachi, in presentday Suwa of Nagano prefecture, Honshu.

Yellow glass was made using a red-earth pigment (iron oxide) as on a set of five mould-blown bowls, decorated with 12-petalled chrysanthemums and karakusa plant scrolls in raised relief. Red glass posed a particular challenge. Whereas gold or copper was added to make European red glass, the Japanese equivalent was created by painting red pigments onto clear colourless glass vessels. This exercise applied equally to red glass beads and glass plates. The dilemma was resolved somewhat by having imported plates of red glass melted down and used for decoration. Regular red glassware production therefore did not commence until the end of the Edo period. A popular variant called neriage or ‘marbled’ glass was produced by mixing assorted colours on a blob and blowing it before they fused. Spontaneous patterns that were produced on sake flasks, goblets and cups included concentric circles, stripes and swirls.

Around the Bunka era (1804-1818) glass-making took a turn. Clear, colourless glass according to Dutch books, could be achieved by adding the manganese oxide colourant, purple gosu to neutralise the pale yellow-green base colour. It enabled Japanese biidoro to attain a quality on par with European high-grade glass, leading to the first cut glass samples called kiriko. Named wasei giyaman or ‘Japanese diamond-like clear glass’ it was distinguished from biidoro by its thick surfaces that required slow-cooling techniques.

There was a significant difference between Japanese and European glass-cutting techniques. European glassmakers cut with a rotating disc but the Japanese used an emery mixed with water, applied in a backwards and forwards motion with an iron-rod type tool. It was a laborious process but produced a finish that was smooth to the touch. Finished products known as tebori kiriko, ‘hand-carved cut glass’ commanded a high price.

By the early 19th century, as practising glassmakers became more professional, production began to take on commercial overtones. Kyushu had a thriving local industry that retained its distinctive identity. Patronage by daimyo ‘feudal lords’ in their own domains saw glassmaking occasionally running in tandem with ceramic production. Taking the lead were the Shimazu of Satsuma followed by the Nabeshima of Saga (renowned for Nabeshima ware) and the Kuroda of Fukuoka. On the western limits of Honshu, the Mori of Hagi, Choshu (now Yamaguchi prefecture) also embarked on glass-making ventures.

In 1846, the daimyo Shimazu Narioki (1791-1859) of the Satsuma fief in Kagoshima established the Nakamura Seiyakukan ‘Nakamura Medicine Production Hall’ to produce glass containers for the storage of medicine and chemicals. Since he had a good number of kilns and over 100 craftsmen, Narioki encouraged them to pursue advanced Nagasaki-style glass production. His son Shimazu Nariakira (1809-1858), who founded the Iso Shuseikan, the first Western-style industrial enterprise in Japan to produce steel and textiles, among others, went further. Using copper colourant, the enterprise made the first ruby-coloured glass, known as satsuma red kiriko, and the highest quality giyaman as gifts for the Edo period aristocracy.

Satsuma kiriko was made by coating transparent, colourless glass with a thick layer of ruby hued glass. An engraver employing the sgrafitto technique, would skilfully cut away the ruby layer – as required by the design – into varying depths. The cuts exposed gradations of colour due to the effects of the copper colloid, which depended also on the thickness of the cased glass. Its distinguishing feature, an uneven distribution of the red hue, greatly appealed to Japanese taste.

One of the Shimazu enterprise’s prized offerings is an exceptional set of satsuma kiriko bowls. The red surface is emblazoned by the Shimazu family crest – consisting of a cross inside a circle of clear glass – suggesting they were perhaps Christian converts. These bowls are highly valued and the only known samples to carry the motif.

Satsuma kiriko had a following and inspired the first catalogue, Hari Seiko Zensho, ‘Handbook of Glass Technology’ written by Kazuyoshi Hanai in 1829. However its production was short-lived. After the deaths of both Narioki and Nariakira, manufacturing eventually ceased. Subsequent social unrest and the Satsuma rebellion went on to destroy much of Kagoshima, forcing its craftsmen to disperse and flee to Osaka and Edo.

Edo kiriko began to be produced during the transition from the Edo to the Meiji periods. It featured transparent and colourless glass that was much more robust than the satsuma variety. One example is a four-tiered kiriko container dated between 1844-1887, its stacked layers decorated with a hailstone pattern throughout. The glass had been hardened by reducing its lead content while a higher amount of saltpeter enabled it to melt easily. The surplus alkali however rendered the glass unstable, and its insides turned white.

Not surprisingly, glass remained an item for the well-heeled. An elaborate goldfish bowl was a luxury item that had been specially commissioned. It was fashioned from clear undecorated glass, a wave design in gold painted on its surface. Intended to carry a goldfish swimming inside, it was suspended by a cord of purple glass beads. According to an inscription on its box, it was a departure gift for one Takahashi Yukichi who was leaving ‘Tobu’ (Edo) on the 20th day of the 11th month, 1820.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, glassware until then a luxury item, began to feature increasingly in everyday life. The nature of raw glass gradually changed from lead glass to soda lime glass. At the same time, a new range of products started incorporating glass with materials such as tortoiseshell, lacquer and mother of pearl into woodwork and metalwork. Small items from elaborate combs and hair ornaments to exquisite insect cages and panelled screens are emblematic of its shift from the luxurious and utilitarian to the purely decorative.




Until 18 June, Seeking the Beauty of Japanese Glass: The Bindeisha Collection is at the Miho Museum, Tashiro Momodani 300, Shigaraki, Shiga 529-1814,