Unless you're familiar with the Japanese language, identifying Japanese pottery and porcelain marks can be a daunting task. Hidden within the kanji -- the characters -- on the bottom of the piece you will typically find the production region, a specific kiln location, a potter's name, and sometimes a separate decorator's identity. But, at times only generic terms were recorded, and tracking down more information requires expert advice. Consulting a china expert, a certified appraiser, or an antiques and collectible dealer in person may be your style, but you can also utilize the many available online resources, most of which have helpful photographs.
Consulting a Professional
Contacting a china or antiques dealer can be the quickest way to identify your porcelain marks. Check the dealer's website or make a preliminary phone call to determine their specialty. The dealer may want to charge a consultation fee, or he may let you know that he would like to sell your piece if you desire, depending upon his policy. A certified appraiser, another professional to seek out, may charge an appraisal fee, but their knowledge is worth it if your piece is at all valuable. Alternately, most places of higher learning often yield free and trusted resources. Contact your local university's language, arts or history department to see if someone can help decode the marks on your Japanese piece. Reaching out to a local artisans' guild can also be a way to glean information.
Using Online Resources
At your own pace, you can sift through several images on websites providing information specifically about Japanese pottery and porcelain marks. With many regions of production, as well as several centuries of workmanship, finding your exact mark may be hit or miss. It's helpful to know certain small hints that can help point the way toward identification:
- Marking within a square, or kaku mark: This is oftentimes indicative of Kutani porcelain, which alone covers five eras.
- Kanji resembling a "pi" symbol over a house: This .is a generic mark, but it's also related to Kutani porcelain.
- Crossed Chinese and Japanese flag with Turkish moon mark: 19th century A. A. Vantine & Co.
- Bright yellow or green glaze: Most likely Awaji ware.
- Lighthearted depictions of beasts and gods: Most likely Bizen ware from Okayama Prefecture.
Three of the most comprehensive websites with images of Japanese pottery and porcelain marks are Gotheborg, G. Bouvier and the Noritake Collectors' Guild. The Noritake site provides an email address to which images of backmarks, or maker stamps, can be submitted for review.
Determining Age and Value
Japanese potters have been active for centuries; the early 8th century saw the creation of colorful Sansai ware, crafted for decorative vessels. Around the beginning of the 17th century, Agano ware was being made for the increasingly popular tea ceremonies. Countless firms from different regions operated over a span of generations. A rare example of an easy-to-date manufacturer is the maker Hichozan Shinpo-sei, which only produced wares in the late part of the Edo period, (1603 to 1867). It is also safe to date any Japanese pottery and porcelain with marks in English to the late 17th century on.
Also, any piece bearing a NIPPON mark is either a pre-1921 piece or a modern piece that re-adopted the mark.
A helpful dating tip in the labyrinth of Japanese marks is it is generally accepted that marks that include "Dai Nippon" in Japanese characters, on the whole, date to the Meiji (1868 to 1912) period, reflecting the greatly increased nationalism of the time. Many early Japanese pottery marks were hand-painted, as they were viewed as a signature. A mark made by stencil is a much later way of marking, dating from the Showa period (1926 to 1989).
To illustrate how difficult it can be to pinpoint an item's manufacturing period, both Arita ware from the Qianlong period (18th century) and from the 1970s use a hazy blue underglaze for their marks. In fact, few hard-and-fast rules exist for the layperson to follow.
Cynthia A. Mulcahy has been published in Portsmouth, New Hampshire's "Accent Home & Garden Magazine", a home decor publication. She also provided copy for the magazine's website and copy edited a 2009 issue. Mulcahy holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and a minor in justice studies from the University of New Hampshire.