Contemporary Japanese art glass works on dislay at the Toyama Glass Art Museum - NiMi Projects
When we curated a NiMi Objects Retro Glass Vibes collection — vintage pieces from friends, family and small stores — we became fascinated with the history of Japanese glassware and its evolution.
When most think of Japanese traditional crafts, glass is not one that immediately comes to mind. The focus is usually on ceramics, silk textiles and washi paper. Japan, though, has an intriguing background of creating some of the highest quality glassware in the world.
A relatively new craft to Japan, the first commercial glass products were believed to have made during the late Edo Period (1603-1868). Aside from simple ancient glass beads, the nation had little experience with the material until Portuguese traders, the first Europeans to visit Japan, brought telescopes and mirrors that fascinated 16th-century feudal lords.
Not long after, however, the Tokugawa Shogunate, fearful of the rapid spread of Christianity, banned European missionaries and traders, and with them further cultural influence from the West. Only one small trading post was allowed to remain — the Dutch East India Company, and even that was restricted to Dejima, an island off Nagasaki harbour.
The Dutch brought to the country lead glass tableware, window panes and mirrors, but that’s not to say that glassware wasn’t also being made in Japan. By the early 18th century, Japanese artisans were imitating European glass works, but without access to overseas knowhow and education, it had limited success as a craft.
It wasn’t until 1853 — when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with an intimidating squadron of modern ships — that Japan was persuaded to open itself up to Western trade, and new crafts, like glassmaking, could begin to flourish.
Mid-century Japanese amber glassware - available in our NiMi Projects Retro Glass Vibes Collection
Western-influenced industrialization led to the production of Japan’s first crystal clear glass by the early 19th century, followed by the development of two of Japan’s best-known cut-glass styles — the brightly coloured Edo Kiriko, made in the capital, and Satsuma Kiriko, made in Kagoshima. Both styles involved colour-layered glass, carved with intricate patterns using a grinding wheel. Edo Kiriko was inspired by early Japanese-style cutting techniques of artisan Kagaya Kyubei, and Satsuma more influenced by the West.
Shinagawa Glassworks in Tokyo was pivotal to further development of Japanese glassware. Established in 1878 by the Meiji government to pioneer Japan’s domestic glass industry, its founding craftsman, Magoichi Shimada had studied Western glass production techniques from the British craftsman James Speed. In 1888, Shimada also established Shimada Glass in Osaka - a pioneer of glass-blowing - now part of Toyo Sasaki Glass, the makers of our Spash Tumblers and Lake Green Platter.
Contemporary Edo Kiriko glassware on show in Tokyo - NiMi Projects
By the Taisho (1912-25) and Showa (1926—89) eras, Japanese glassware had fully blossomed. Japan’s artisans and small manufacturers produced high-quality glass — from sparkling kiriko works and colourful mouth-blown artglass pieces to on-trend modern designs and simple everyday soda-lime glass tableware.
Toyama, an area that historically produced glass vials for pharmaceuticals, is now known as the Venice of Japan and houses the Toyama Kirari Glass Museum, which showcases the work of Japan’s best glass artists. Edo Kiriko is still made in Tokyo, and other styles of glass prevail, including Ryuku glass, mouth-blown glass works that were originally made by recycling bottles left on the island by U.S. military after World War II.
Read our other NiMi Projects journal articles here.
Toyo Sasaki Spash Tumblers - available at NiMi Projects here