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The history of Bizen ware’s fall from grace with the advent of “kirei-sabi”


Bizen ware made its start in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) in practical items for everyday use. It was used in nothing more than goods for the general use of the commoners, rather than in artworks to be handled by those with power.


However, the tea culture began to take hold from the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) to the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603).


At the same time, to go along with the distinctly Japanese culture of placing value on “wabi-sabi”, Bizen ware began to be highly-treasured in tea ceremonies. Bizen ware can be thought of as being the most utilized of all types of ceramic ware in this age.


However, when the transition was made to the next age, Bizen ware started to fall out of favor. We will take a look at what kind of historical circumstances surrounded Bizen ware.


The appearance of kirei sabi
Wabi-cha was the primary kind of tea ceremony performed in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. Sen no Rikyū, taught in all Japanese history courses, was active at the time and was responsible for making wabi-cha a huge success. It was believed that its real beauty was not in extravagance, but in its austere simplicity.


Thus, Bizen ware, with its earthy colors and ability to bring the best out of the focus of attention, made a great match with the world of wabi-cha, and was very highly-treasured. By eliminating excess to the extent possible, each person’s unique emotions served to build up this world.


The age then transitioned to the Edo Period (1603-1868). Kobori Enshū was a figure at this time who had inherited significant influence in the tea ceremony world.


The world of tea that he constructed was defined by having an objectivity to it that anyone could accept. He tried to make it appear beautiful to anyone watching, unlike it had been to that point – a world only understood by those who had shaped it. His tea ceremony was referred to as "kirei sabi" ("beautiful sabi").


Kirei sabi used appealing tea equipment, mainly white, and was used to entertain guests in well-lit tea rooms. Thinking along these lines, it can be seen that the earthy-colored, rustic Bizen ware clearly did not fit into the world of kirei sabi.


And so it was that Bizen ware started its fall from favor with the change of ages. With the change in perceptions of beauty towards tea, the chatō (containers for tea) used began to transition towards more appealing ceramics. Bizen ware’s shares were taken away by such vivid ceramic wares as Arita ware and Seto ware.


New changes born out of the bizen ware crisis

Bizen Wareの狛犬

With Bizen ware on the decline, it started to be used to make ornaments and decorations, rather than just tea instruments and practical items. In other words, ornaments which carried the sense of being carved statues were created in addition to just flower vases and plates and the like. These pieces are referred to as handiworks.


These handiworks were made in order to keep up with the changing times.


The Okayama Domain, the center of production of Bizen ware, designated it as an Important Cultural Asset of the Domain. Still, perhaps because Bizen ware’s distinct earthy colors caused it to seem out of tune with the times, its quality and amount of production dropped off.


It was in this period that shirobizen made its appearance. Rather than the earthy color Bizen ware, this was white Bizen ware, reminiscent of porcelain.


Works known as saishiki bizen, which were Bizen ware pieces adorned with paintings, also made an appearance. For Bizen ware, which had developed until then only with clay and the color attributed to firing, the Bizen ware at this time can be considered quite peculiar. The emergence of these kinds of Bizen ware gives us a glimpse into the sense of urgency felt at the time.


The kilns used to fire Bizen ware also shrank in size with the downturn. In contrast with the great kilns that had been in use until then, the kilns constructed at this time were quite small.


The downsize in kilns, though, helped to add speed. Great kilns required a period of 30 - 40 days to fire Bizen ware. In comparison, by scaling down the kiln size, the ware could be fired in 6 - 7 days.


Expenses could also be controlled since artisans could make just the amount required. Turnaround on products could also be improved. These factors cut down on the labor that went into making Bizen ware.


Although Bizen ware had fallen in this manner, it had not completely lost its position that brought it fame in the past. It is known that the Daimyo — feudal lords — would buy Bizen ware whenever they stopped by Inbe, Bizen City in Okayama, even in this time period.

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