A Brief History of Japanese Glass by Yoshio Tsuchiya


Yoshio Tsuchiya, Chief Curator of
the Suntory Museum of Art, Osaka

The first glass in Japan is found among archaeological remains dating to the Yayoi period (3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.). At that time in Japan, rice farming had started, and bronze and iron wares were being produced. The people who made the earliest glass products are said to have come from the Korean peninsula, but it is not clear. Blown glass was discovered in Syria-Palestine during the 1st century B.C.; at that time, very small glass beads were beginning to be produced in Japan. Barium and lead oxide are included in the glass of these beads, so we presume that the glass was not made in Japan, but came into Japan from the Asian continent through the Korean peninsula. In ancient times, glass beads were precious and symbolic of power.

Japanese cast glass "comma" bead. 8th century.
1 1/4 inches length (2.9cm)

The Japanese did not have the ability to batch glass at the beginning, although they melted and formed it. The unusual comma-shaped beads, found only in Japan and on the Korean peninsula, are unique and date from the middle of the Yayoi period. On Kyushu and elsewhere, clay and stone molds for the comma beads have been found, so we know that at this time some glass was beginning to be worked in Japan. There are two examples of Roman glass, dating to the 5th century, that have survived in Japan. These glasses are important evidence that there was some exchange or trading between Japan and Europe at this early time.

Sasanian Persian blown and cut glass bowl
found in the tomb of the Emperor Ankan,
Japan, 6th century. 3 1/4 inches high (8.2 cm)

In the 8th century, during the Nara period, glass vessels become popular, but it is not certain whether they were made in Japan or not. The most famous glass from this period is the collection kept in Shousouin Temple, which was all imported. One colorless, blown glass bowl with foot was dedicated to the temple in 752, according to an inscription found inside of it. The bowl itself can be dated to the 8th century, and it is Persian. It possibly traveled over the Silk Route, on the back of a camel. One blue cup with a metal foot and cut ring decoration is very similar in style to early Korean glass, while a green glass flask reflects the distinctive style of 11th century Chinese glass. Also from the Shousouin Treasure is a collection of 240,000 glass beads that originally belonged to a large bead net.

Japanese cast glass fish from the Shousouin Treasure, Nara,
8th century, 3 1/4 inches greatest length (8.2 cm)

In the latter half of the 16th century, the history of glass changed abruptly. After 1550, Portuguese ships came to Japan with western cargo, and many missionaries from Europe came to Japan as well, bringing western products. Glass was treasured as an important object and souvenir at this time. Paintings from the Momoyama period (1578-1615) show some of the imported goods brought into Japan, including European glass. The same paintings depict westerners wearing eyeglasses, which was the first time the Japanese had ever seen them. In a detail from one of the paintings, a European cut glass bowl can be seen.

Up until the Edo period (1603-1867), glass of any kind was considered a luxury to be enjoyed by society's upper class. In addition to the European imports, much of Japanese early knowledge and technology in regard to glassmaking was derived from China. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Japanese were able to produce work such as the stacked box of blue, mold-blown, lead glass, dated 1714, in the collection of Professor Junji Tanahashi. This piece is 64 percent lead, which is very different from European lead glass of the period.

By the end of the 18th century, the number of practicing glassmakers grew, especially in large cities such as Nagasaki, Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo (Tokyo). During the Edo period, many superb works of art were created, including glass. One image from a 1770 painted scroll for craftsmen depicts glassblowers dressed in Japanese costume of the period, kneeling on tatami mats in front of a furnace and blowing glass. Glasses made in Japan at this time include deep, molded dishes and tumblers in amber, blue, green, and clear glass. However, the works are still thin and very small. On the blown pieces, there is no trace of the pontil or any other mark indicating the use of a punty rod.

Smaller glass items such as hair ornaments, ear picks, and other accessories became available to the public. Between 1716 and 1735, for example, a small musical instrument, made out of glass, became fashionable with women. One ukiyo-e print of the period shows this instrument, while another shows a woman drinking out of a stemmed glass. In the print, the glass is rendered to appear transparent.

From this period, also, is an illustration of a stemmed, lead glass goblet with an opaque twist in the stem. Goblets like this were made in Japan imitating the foreign technique, specifically the air twist stems of fashionable English glasses. The technique used for these glasses was not very sophisticated, and some are quite primitive-looking.

Yoshio Tsuchiya lecturing at Bunka Center with
image of a Japanese Edo period ukiyo-e
woodblock print showing a glass vessel.

In another ukiyo-e print dating from the early 19th century, a small goldfish bowl with a string is illustrated. This was a very popular item at the time: people carried around tiny fishbowls, like a purse, by their string handles. Another interesting item was a birdcage made with glass bars; it was popular to keep quail in this kind of cage. The glass bars are made of twisted canes.

Cut glass began to be made in the early 19th century, and it is at this time that the first glass catalogues appear. One catalogue illustration of available glasses was originally used as a wrapping paper and is now an important historical record. Kagaya was the name of the store that sold these glasses. Some examples from the Kagaya catalogue included Edo cut glass - what we call Edo kiriko. There are cut-glass stacked boxes, sake glasses, covered rice bowls, and a cut-glass stationery set, among many other products. In 1829, the first book describing glassmaking methods was published.

While the western influence was strong, the Japanese style in glass retained its identity and spirit. During the 19th century, glassmaking took on a distinctive regional identity. The Nagasaki region, known for its ornate and complex glass shapes, was highly respected for its glassblowing expertise. Satsuma kiriko, a technique in which the glassmaker cuts colored glass for decorative effect, also began to flourish at this time in Kyushu.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), there were many European influences, particularly English and Venetian. The most important Japanese glass factory was the Shinagawa glass factory, where many influential glassmakers were trained. I end this brief history with the first piece of Japanese art glass, a 1935 vase by Toshichi Iwata.

Yoshio Tsuchiya is a native of Osaka, Japan, and graduated from Osaka City University in 1962. He has published a number of books on glass and art, including Satsuma Cut Class (1983); Japanese Glass (1987); A Feast for the Eyes: Japanese Vessels (1988); Chinese Glass of the Qing Dynasty (1989); Galle of Galle's (l993); and Fantasy of Class (1997). He is Chief Curator and advisor to the chairman of the Suntory Museum of Art, and the Deputy President of the Association for Glass Art Studies, Japan.

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