March 2024

Good Eye

Collecting Japanese Kutani and Satsuma Wares

by Peggy Whiteneck

I generally prefer collecting Japanese to Chinese antique pottery and porcelain. This is because, in China, the practice of honorifics, in which late items are marked as being from earlier dynasties, is common. At least in their pre-Internet forms, these later honorifics were not intended to deceive; they were made as a kind of homage to the artists and eras that inspired them. Consequently, my efforts to date a piece of Chinese porcelain are fraught with problems that are beyond the expertise of an amateur collector like me (It’s also true that most of the worthwhile antique Chinese porcelain is in collections already, not seeking buyers on eBay). I found that Japanese porcelain was at least somewhat easier to date and authenticate as to age.

Japanese pottery and porcelain types most commonly seen on the secondary market include Kutani and Satsuma. They generally date from the Meiji (1868-1912) to the Showa (1926-1989) periods. The two types are usually clearly distinguished from each other. Most Kutani porcelain has painted surfaces (landscapes, flowers, and/or people) surrounded by scrolled red diapers (a red framing called Akae). Satsuma is a pottery often found with raised enameled paint on a crackled, cream-colored background although there are many other decorative variations as well.

More About Kutani Porcelain

Kutani is most often found marked with Japanese characters spelling that name. Sometimes, a piece will be marked with a painter’s signature (in Japanese characters), but dating can be complicated since both names and careers were often passed from father to son.
Experts generally divide the types of Kutani into “Old Kutani” (17th century ff) and the more frequently seen and newer (19th century ff). Old Kutani was made in a wide variety of styles, often with strong geometrical decoration (Nancy Schiffer, “Japanese Porcelain, 1800-1950,” Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1999, p. 194).

Later Kutani items are plentiful on the secondary market here in the States. Kutani varies widely in the quality of its decoration, from very fine to slap-dash. For my own collection, I’m very picky about quality of the decoration and prefer painted motifs that are unusual rather than the small groups of Japanese women commonly seen on this ware.

Asian views of symmetry differ from those in the West in that the former are less hung up on a completely symmetrical match in tableware. Thus, an inexact match in cup and saucer, for instance, would not have troubled them. As a related point, a full “set” of tableware in the West is even-numbered, while, in Japan, a full set consisted of five place settings.

Satsuma Pottery

Satsuma was made in a variety of shapes and forms, e.g., tea sets, vases, boxes, and figurines. Like Kutani, Japanese Satsuma pottery was a multi-generational enterprise, and this can complicate efforts to date individual items. In Satsuma, there were 17 generations of potters in the Kozan family and seven in the Kobayashi (Kinkozan)!

Decoration in Satsuma may be of either a moriage (raised) type or simply painted on the flat surface. In some examples of the latter, the decoration covers nearly the entire surface. Gilt dotting in the background of painted scenes is a common feature in Satsuma. Even when just the slightest bit of pottery itself is visible amid the paint, the characteristic Satsuma crackles are evident.


Coudersport Duck on Nest

A Satsuma covered jar

A Satsuma covered jar in the style typical of the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Items in this style were seen often on the secondary market just a few years ago, less commonly now. The enamel painting is raised, and the crackle in the glaze on the body is very fine. The top for the jar is also painted with budding pink branches and a butterfly. Unlike much of the Satsuma in this style, this one is signed by the artist under the butterfly at the bottom of the jar. (Image courtesy of the author)

Relief decoration, in which the moriage stands out from the surrounding pottery, was difficult to make. In some moriage, the decoration is separately applied by hand. In other examples, it is molded in relief on the surface of the object. Moriage of whatever application was difficult to make because failure to fire at the correct temperature for the correct time length could lead to unsightly boiling of the enamel (Sandra Andacht, “Treasury of Satsuma,” Wallace-Homestead Book Co., 1981, p. 50). The presence of Gosu Blue and turquoise is characteristic of earlier Satsuma, while pink comes into the coloration later.

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector, and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at