Japan’s Maritime Trade in Ceramics – Archaeological Sources on
International Exchange in the 14th to 17th Centuries
(Supported by the German Research Foundation, DFG, 2008-2011)
International relations proved difficult for Japan during the Muromachi 室町 period (1333-1568), and at the same time, as can be discovered from the archaeological record, maritime trade seem to have never been as active and vivid in the East Asian seas as in those days. High fired ceramics were particularly in great demand in Japan that, unlike Korea, had neither suitable kilns nor sufficient technical knowledge to produce wares of a quality comparable to those highly appreciated bowls and dishes from the Longquan 龍泉 celadon kilns in Zhejiang 浙江, or the famous Jingdezhen 景徳鎮 porcelain production centre in Jiangxi 江西. In spite of the official maritime trade ban proclaimed by early Ming 明 China, ceramics reached the Japanese archipelago in large amounts during the Muromachi period.
This segment of maritime trade is illustrated mainly by archaeological sources. Ceramic shards stemming from kilns outside the Japanese islands – from China, Korea, and South East Asia – constitute one of the major finds among medieval and early modern archaeological complexes. Typical ceramic wares of this period comprise glazed and unglazed stoneware, celadon ware, white porcelain, blue-and-white ware, as well as earthenware from different origins.
The project on ‘Japan’s Maritime Trade in Ceramics’ searches to contribute to the perception of the structures and developments of maritime trade of Japan in the 14th to 17th centuries by analyzing imported ceramics (Jap. bōeki tōji 貿易陶磁) from various archaeological contexts, with a focus on coastal and maritime sites in the western Japan area, namely Kyūshū, Tsushima and Iki Islands, the Gotō Archipelago, and the Nansei (Ryūkyū) Island chain.
This project examines the archaeologies of smaller islands round the East Asian coasts from a comparative perspective. The dichotomy of islands as places of interaction and isolation serves as a framework for a discussion of the distinctiveness of island cultures. Thus it is attempted to question the notion of the sea as a barrier or as a means of exchange and communication.
Major questions raised in this context are as follows:
Did the sea really constitute a barrier, or can we regularly neglect it in prehistoric and historic contexts? Are specific cultural elaborations typical for an island framework, and if, what kind of such elements can we perceive? Can islands in the East China Sea and the Korea Straits in consequence serve as key areas for archaeological modelling? Is it possible to apply concepts addressing a certain function of a geographical region, such as a “passage area” to one or even all of our investigated islands or coastal areas? Is a model of a specific “island archaeology” possible at all? Does it make sense in an East Asian context? Or do we better focus on each cultural region separately regardless of it being an island, a coastal, or an inland area?
The situation in East Asia is of course in many regards different from the concept of isolation and remoteness, and land centred views, which underlies the general perception of island archaeology (in the west). Rather than concentrating on the island itself, we may include coastal areas from neighbouring regions, thus placing islands in a larger framework, so as to reach to a better understanding of maritime societies as such.