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In search of Bizen ware's roots: Bizen ware's origins in historic sueki


Bizen ware is a kind of pottery that has flourished in Bizen City, Okayama, and its roots lie in sueki, or "sue ware", which was brought to Japan from the Korean Peninsula around the fifth century. Changes undergone by sueki gave rise to Bizen ware, Echizen ware, Shigaraki ware, Seto ware, and more throughout Japan.


Even today, there are areas around Japan named "Sue", many of which stem from sueki.


It can be supposed that these areas received their names because they were once production centers for sueki.


There is also an area called Sue in Okayama, the birthplace of Bizen ware.


Even today, visitors can enjoy the town atmosphere and the shops lining the streets where Bizen ware developed by taking a stroll from Inbe Station. The town that found prosperity through Bizen ware is still intact today.


The evolution from sueki to Bizen ware
The production of sueki thrived in ancient times, evolving into Bizen ware in the Middle Ages. There are significant differences in meaning between Bizen ware and sueki.


Sueki was, for all intents and purposes, made to be used by the privileged classes of the day. It could be thought of, so to speak, as a kind of status symbol. On the contrary, Bizen ware was made to be used in the everyday lives of the common people. As a kind of ceramic ware that fit more into everyday life, it made its departure away from sueki.


The Bizen ware at the time developed in the area of Bizen City, Okayama called Inbe. Later, the kilns used to make Bizen ware would be expanded to massive proportions. Groups even began to emerge to circulate the ceramics produced.


However, casting a look at Bizen ware when it was first made, it hardly had any differences with wares of the sueki era. Tiles, plates, pots, bowls, etc. were the most common types of ware.


Historical backdrop at the dawn of Bizen ware
The formative period for Bizen ware lasted from the latter half of the 12th century to the first half of the 13th century, during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). At the time, Okayama was divided into three separate states – Bizen, Bicchū, and Mimasaka. Bizen ware was made in Bizen, Kameyama ware was made in Bicchū, and Katsumada ware was made in Mimasaka.


In the neighboring prefecture of Hyogo, Uozumi ware was flourishing in Akashi City, and Tokameyama ware was prospering in Kagawa Prefecture’s town of Ayakami. Each of these stemmed from sueki.


Bizen ware was surrounded by these influential ceramics; as a result, it can be assumed that it was difficult for distribution to take off in other areas. The production lots of Bizen ware were small, and, in fact, only a small amount of Bizen ware has been unearthed from historic ruins. Only sparse amounts of Bizen ware produced then have been left behind in time.


Looking at other ceramic wares, more vivid and vibrant works were being produced around this time. However, Bizen ware did not stray far from the reddish-brown color of sueki.


Perhaps this was its recipe for success – it continued to be used as nothing more than a good for practical use, rather than as a work of art. It was also insulated from the influence of other ceramics, developing in its own way.


Although Bizen ware had quite a late start due to this historical backdrop, it gradually gained popularity in products for everyday use. Later, along with the spread of the tea culture, Bizen ware’s distinctive ability to enhance its companion without drawing attention to itself led it to stand atop all other ceramics.


*A piece from the Kamakura Period


The fact that it was slow to get started may explain what made the distinct culture surrounding Bizen ware. Bizen ware’s beauty in improving the appearance of its surroundings without interjecting itself is believed to have started in this time period.

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