okiboy novelties and collectibles

The Japanese Collectibles Adventure

A Fiction Story Inspired by Okiboy's website:
www.japanesepotterymarks.info
Last Updated: July 23, 2015

© 2015 John Higa "All Rights Reserved"


Shoving aside cluttered paperwork, John put his laptop computer on the rosewood desk in his basement office. The storage cabinet built against the back wall contained an assortment of Japanese potteries, lacquerwares, and woodworks. Paintings and antique clocks hung on the walls above the fold-up tables that displayed many of his favorite figurines. Searching under the tables, he grabbed a plastic container that was labeled Made In Japan Porcelain hand-written on a notebook paper taped to the lid. Moving between stacked cardboard boxes, he dragged the container to his desk and removed its lid, revealing a mound of paper wrapped items. He had packed the container over a year ago and hardly remembered its contents.

John settled back into his large swivel chair and removed a pair of ski goggles from the desk drawer. He stretched the thick elastic band behind his head and adjusted the dark lenses over his eyes. The large goggles covered the upper-half of his face, except for the area that looped above his nose. He then plugged the USB connector, which had been wired to the goggle’s side shield, into his laptop computer.

Reaching to the side, John pulled an item from the container and unwrapped a footed teacup. “Amazing,” he muttered, admiring the cup’s hand-painted blooming red rose over smooth white porcelain. The ceiling lights reflected off the clear glaze. Pinching the heart-shaped handle, he held up the cup and observed the curved interior. Contours of an image were visible through the translucent porcelain bottom. “Wow.” He turned over the teacup to inspect the Nippon backstamp, which ascertained that Noritake Company made the piece during the early 1900s. “It’s nice to meet—”

“Dad!” Jane shouted, walking down the stairs. “Who are you talking to?”

He jumped out of the seat, placing the cup on the desk. He looked up and smiled. “Uh…just talking to myself again.”

Standing by the door, Jane folded her arms. “Why are you wearing my ski goggles?”

Pulling the elastic band, he removed the goggles. “This is my newest invention!”

Jane stood dumbfounded for a moment. “Mom wants the laundry.” She pointed behind him toward the adjoining room where the dryer rumbled.

John grinned. “The laundry’s still drying, so we have time for you to test out my newest device.” He rolled the seat behind her. “Sit. . .please.”

She sighed, falling back into the chair. “Dad, can we make this quick? I really should be filling out college applications.”

He fitted the goggles over her eyeglasses, pulling the thick band behind her head. “How’s that?”

“Oh my gosh.” She clutched her short hair. “You turned my ski goggles into a kaleidoscope!”

“The color you see are micro images.” He put the teacup into her hands. “Observe this item.”

Jane groaned. “Sure, Dad.” She looked at the cup, which she carefully held in both hands. “It’s hard to see through these lenses. The colors are very distracting.”

“Concentrate. Look through the moving colors and focus your vision on the teacup. It’ll take a while but you’ll begin to see—”

“Whoa!” she jerked back.

John caught the falling teacup. “Careful!”

She pulled off the goggles. Blinking fast, she shook her head.

“What? What did you see?” John asked.

“There were horse carriages and wood buildings. It was so weird, Dad.”

“It works!” John raised his fist. “Yes!”

Jane scratched her head. “What’s going on?”

During the previous months at the library, John had read lots of psychology books about imagination and the subconscious mind. Generally, a person’s brain stored vast amounts of information gained through life experiences. Using that information, a person had the ability to imagine things that they had never actually experienced. Even when people were unaware, the mind continuously processed incredible amounts of information, allowing people to have such things as instincts and dreams. Accordingly to those psychological concepts, John created goggles with lenses that provided micro images that supplied specialized knowledge to the subconscious mind. Moreover, the images moved at a special frequency, specifically influencing a person’s imagination. Consequently, observing an artifact through the goggles, a person would experience a dreamlike situation that was focused on ideas associated with that artifact.

She grabbed the goggles and put them back on. “Let’s give it another try.”

“That’s my girl!” John placed the teacup back into her hand.

Jane looked through the lenses, studying the teacup. Turning it slowly.

“Take your time.” John advised. “Remember, it’s going to feel as though you’re dream—”

The carriage horse whinnied as it moved passed Jane. People were entering and exiting various wood-structured shops that stood along the city’s paved dirt road. The men wore tailored black jackets, slacks, vests, and bow ties. Their high-collared shirts and gloves were white. “Nice outfit, Dad,” she said, giggling. “I especially love your Abraham Lincoln style hat.”

“Thank you.” John smiled. “You’re dressed remarkably similar to one of my Made In Japan collectible figurines of a Victorian era lady.”

Jane wore white gloves and a turtle-necked long-sleeved upper garment. A heavy overskirt flowed outward from her waist to the ground, and a small forward-tilted Glengarry cap was fitted on top her enormous wig. “Victorian? Are we in Europe?”

John shook his head. “The goggles contain information about Japanese exports to the United States. So we’re probably in. . .” he said, assessing the surroundings, “Aha! We’re in New York City, around the late nineteenth century.”

“How do you know?”

He pointed across the street toward a large Morimura Brothers sign hanging over the store’s display window. “That’s Noritake’s first store in the United States, which was open soon after the Meiji Restoration.”

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was a series of events that ultimately transferred Japan’s political power from the samurai warrior class to the Emperor. Up until that time, Japan had been isolated from the Western world. Rejecting isolationism and adopting an open policy, the new government encouraged Japanese businesses to trade with foreign countries. The Morimura Brothers Company, later known as Noritake Company, was an early exporter of Japanese goods to the United States.

“Noritake makes plates and stuff, right?” Jane recalled the tableware that filled her grandmother’s glass cabinet.

“That’s right. But their influence went well beyond porcelainware. That store epitomizes the beginning of the modern Japanese export industry. Let’s take a closer look.” He rushed across the street.

Sheesh, how am I supposed to move in these tight clothes? She clutched her dress and realized that it was draped over a wire-structured bustle attached to her waist. Oh my gosh! Pulling her dress above ground, Jane ran after her father, stepping over several muddy potholes. “Slow down, Dad!”

“Morimura started out as an antique dealer,” John explained, standing in front of the display window and pointing at a large cloisonné vase with spectacular gold linings. “Americans loved those types of highly decorated porcelain.”

Looking into the display window, Jane’s jaws dropped. Japanese bronze cranes, lacquered boxes, and ceramic vases gradually appeared. A large replica of a Japanese building appeared in the back. There is no way all those objects could fit into this small shop.

“I know those items,” John gasped. “Those are artifacts from the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition!”

In 1876, the Japanese government was scrambling for ways to increase its exports to the United States. Spending a small fortune at the international exhibition in Philadelphia, the Japanese government had hoped to promote Japanese crafts in the United States. Additionally, they were eager to learn more about the American consumer’s tastes. Consequently, many of their entries were inclined toward Western rather than traditional Japanese aesthetics.

“Let’s go inside.” John walked up the short staircase into a damp hallway.

Scribbling on a notepad, a dark-suited man stood in front of a door marked Morimura Brothers 540 Broadway. He wore dark sunglasses and his hair was greased back. Glancing toward Jane, he rushed away.

“Who was that?” Jane whispered.

John shrugged. “Never seen him before.”

A little bronze chime jingled when John opened the door. The dimly lit store was full of Japanese items, mostly ceramics. At the other end of the store, a young man got up from his desk and walked toward them.

“Hello. My name is Toyo Morimura.” He placed a hand on his belly and bowed.

“Hi, I’m Jane and this is my dad.”

“My name is John, it’s nice to meet you,” he said, extending his hands. “I’ve read about you.”

In 1876, Toyo and his brother Ichitaro had established the Morimura Brothers Company. During that time, Japan imported much more American products than it exported. The trade imbalance was depleting Japan’s gold reserves at an alarming rate. Unless Japan found a way to export more manufactured goods, their financial system would have eventually collapsed. The brothers were committed to building a successful export business and helping their country’s economy. While Ichitaro managed the office in Japan, Toyo set up a store in New York City.

Toyo’s eyes widened. “Are you Japanese?”

“We’re Japanese-Americans from Seattle!”

Tilting his head sideward and narrowing his eyes, Toyo seemed confused. Japanese migration to the United States only began after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, and the United States laws had not yet allowed the Japanese immigrants to obtain citizenship. Therefore, there were no Japanese-Americans at that time. Additionally, Washington wasn’t a state, and Seattle was not well known.

John smiled. “We’re from the Washington territory on the West Coast.”

“Ah!” Toyo’s nodded. “You’ve come a long way. It took my horse a week to travel from Boston to New York. That’s with excellent roads. I can’t image the difficulty of traveling to the West Coast.”

“Boston?” Her eyes sparkled. “I’m actually applying to Harvard.”

John winced. “Jane, Harvard’s tuition is quite expensive.”

Jane grinned. “Mr. Morimura, tell me about Harvard.”

“Harvard was wonderful!” Toyo exclaimed. “I learned so many new ideas that I’d like to apply to our business. I’m especially interested in western manufacturing techniques.” Toyo folded his arms and paused. “I’d like to build a modern porcelain factory in Japan. But, my brother doesn’t approve.”

“Why not?” Jane asked.

“Japan has developed its unique porcelain techniques over the past three hundred years in relative isolation from the rest of the world. Rather than relying on mass production techniques, Japanese potters spend lots of time making each artifact. Fortunately, the West has recognized the beauty of Japanese ceramics and purchases many items. So my brother wants to limit our exports to traditional Japanese pottery.” Toyo gritted his teeth. “However, exporting traditional Japanese ceramics will not be enough to reduce our trade imbalance with the United States. I’m also afraid that unless we modernize, the Japanese porcelain industry will altogether disappear under pressures of the free market.”

“Do you think Japan can compete with the Western porcelain industries?” John asked.

“Japan is a small country with limited natural resources. Consequently, we don’t have too many industries. At Harvard, I learned that Japan should identify a handful of their top industries and strive to export those goods. The porcelain industry is one of our top industries, so we should naturally seek to export porcelainware. While America already manufactures porcelainware, they also have other more profitable industries.”

“You’re talking about the principle of comparative advantage!”

Toyo looked surprised. “Jane, you’re quite knowledge about international trade.”

“Jane is a great student.” John beamed. “She got a perfect score on the SAT.”

Jane blushed. “I don’t know much. Comparative advantage was just something I learned in my high school Advanced Economics.”

British economist David Ricardo developed the classical theory of comparative advantage in 1817. He explained that international trade caused trading countries to specialize in specific industries, shifting their respective resources towards industries in which they were relatively proficient. According to that idea, Toyo felt that it didn’t necessarily matter whether Americans were good at making porcelainware. Given the right conditions, market forces would compel America to shift resources away from porcelainware toward other more profitable industries. The net effect would be that Americans would purchase Japanese porcelain, and the Japanese would purchase America’s non-porcelain goods, such as machinery.

“I wish more Japanese politicians would take Western economic classes,” Toyo said, looking at Jane. “Japan is new at international trading and frequently enters unfavorable trade agreements with Western countries.”

“I’m sure Japan will do great in the porcelain industry,” Jane said.

“Thank you, Jane.” Toyo placed a hand on his belly and bowed.

“Dad, your kimono is so worn out.” Jane said, pushing a wooden cart up a rocky hill. She wore a shabby kimono and reed slippers. Sweat rolled down her soot-covered face. The two walked alongside a long tunnel-like structure called an anagama kiln, which was developed by the Chinese and brought to Japan through Korea during the fifth century. The long sloping kiln produced different heat temperatures at various altitudes, allowing the potter to efficiently fire many types of ceramics at once.

John smiled, looking at his daughter. “I guess we’re pottery workers.”

Nearing the anagama’s smoking chimney, they approached a man sitting at a horizontal potter’s wheel, turning a lump of clay. The upper part of his kimono was pulled back and hung behind the sash tied around his waist. His thin torso showed signs of hunger, but his eyes were alert. He focused on the clay turning between his hands and gradually transforming into a small bowl. The wheel stopped and the man wiped his forehead with his wrist.

“Master Yi, these just came out of the kiln.” Jane pushed the cart close to him.

Seeing the crate full of broken ceramics, Yi’s eyes sank. “The new clay was too brittle. It couldn’t handle the firing. I’ll need to try again.”

“Master Yi, please take a look at this piece that also came from the kiln.” John handed Yi an item wrapped in cloth.

Yi unwrapped an unbroken grayish tea bowl with speckles of black burn marks. Moving his fingers over the ceramic, a tear fell from Yi’s eyes. “Now I’m certain that we can reproduce the clay of my home country.”

In 1597, during an invasion into Korea, the powerful Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s army had kidnapped Yi Sam-pyoeong and thousands of other skilled Korean potters, taking them to Japan and forcing them to work at various pottery kilns. Hideyoshi was trying to gain control of Korea’s lucrative ceramics industry. He was particularly interested in access to kaolin, the primary ingredient of porcelain, which could not be found in Japan at that time. A successful conquest of that foreign nation would have significantly filled his coffers, ensuring victory over his Japanese adversaries and attaining the position of Shogun, the sole ruler of Japan. However, the Koreans defeated his army, reducing Hideyoshi’s power and prestige. He died soon thereafter, and the Toyotomi clan rapidly fell from grace. Nonetheless, the Korean potters continued working in Japanese kilns.

Trotting up the rocky mountain, a dark horse carried a man and a woman. The man held the horse’s reign in one hand, and a horsewhip in the other. He wore a black silk kimono and suspended two katana swords by his waist side. Only samurai warriors were allowed to carry those weapons. Sitting sideway behind him, a lady wrapped her arms around his chest. She wore a beautiful white kimono. The wind ruffled her long blonde hair.

Jane spotted a round gold emblem painted on the samurai’s black lacquered conical Asian helmet. “Dad, do you recognize that mondokoro?” A modokoro, or mon, were Japanese emblems used to identify an individual, family, or clan.

“He’s a government official from the Nabeshima clan.” John sounded concerned.

Yi got on both knees, placed his hands on the ground, and bowed. Taking several steps back, John and Jane did the same.

Yi had first arrived in Japan during the climactic final years of the Sengoku, which was a long period of constant warfare amongst the Japanese feudal lords, called daimyos. He immediately went to work for the daimyo of the Nabeshima clan, which had allied with Toyotomi Hideyoshi and contributed to Hideyoshi’s Korean invasion. In those chaotic days, however, daimyos constantly destroyed one another and frequently changed alliances.

“Who’s that lady?” Jane whispered.

“What lady?” John squinted looking around.

She pointed toward the black horse. “Can you see her?”

John shook his head. “I only see the guy.”

The horse abruptly halted, brushing dirt onto Yi.

“Yi, who are those two?” the official shouted, pointing his whip toward John and Jane. “I’ve never seen them before.”

Yi looked upward with his hands firmly placed on the ground. “They are new apprentices.”

The official grunted. “Why are you hiring new apprentices when you haven’t made decent ceramics for years?”

“My sincerest apologies.” Yi’s forehead touched the rocky ground. “I’ve been experimenting with new material.” He reached for the bowl and lifted it. “But please take a look at this breakthrough product.”

“Ugh,” the lady said, glancing at the bowl. “The Korean potters in other provinces make much better ceramics.” Seeking prestige and tax revenues, many daimyos sought out skilled Korean potters to establish ceramic kilns within their provinces. Rising to the call, many Koreans were making great advances to the Japanese ceramic industry. For example, in the Yamaguchi prefecture, Korean potters created the rustic Hagi earthenware that became a favorite for tea ceremonies. Also, in the Saga prefecture, several created the Karatsuware, which was known for its practical sturdiness. Of course, the provincial daimyos tightfistedly guarded the secrets of those pottery techniques.

“Nobody would want such an ugly bowl!” The official’s face turned red with anger. “Yi, you are done here. Pack up and move immediately off the premises.”

The lady flung back her hair. “A hot spring would be perfect at this site. The Tokugawa Shogunate has maintained peace for over fifteen years. They’re also building new roads that are quite safe. People are ready to travel and have a good time.”

The Sengoku Period had ended in 1603 when the Daimyo Tokugawa Ieyasu overpowered all of his adversaries and became the sole ruler of Japan, taking the title of Shogun and ushering in the Edo Period. In a timely political move, the Nabeshima clan switched alliance from the losing Toyotomi clan to the victorious Tokugawa clan. The Tokugawa Shogunate would govern with an iron fist and sustain peace throughout Japan. However, the Shogunate would also gradually isolate Japan from the rest of the world.

“Please, sir,” Yi pleaded. “I could never survive without the protection and support of the daimyo. What will happen to all of my workers? They will starve.”

“They can all work in the hot spring business,” the lady said. “We will need lots of laborers.”

“That’s none of my concern!” the official snapped at Yi.

“Please take a closer look,” Yi pleaded, lifting the bowl closer to the official.

“You disrespectful imbecile.” The official raised his horsewhip. “Never question my orders!”

“No!” Yi screamed. “Please don’t hit me!”

“Stop!” A shout echoed against the surrounding mountains.

Everyone looked toward the two horsemen racing up the hill.

“Oh my gosh!” The official froze. “It’s Lord Nabeshima Katsushige himself.”

Lord Katsushige, the daimyo of the Nabeshima clan, was one of the Shogun’s most powerful vassals. Katsushige governed the Saga Domain on the southern island of Kyushu. Controlling the only Japanese port that traded with the Western countries, the Saga Domain had a thriving economy.

The official dismounted and kneeled, but the lady stayed on the horse. “The other man is Ichinosei,” the lady said, stroking her hair with a moon-shaped comb. “He’s a trade merchant that speaks over thirty languages, including all the Western tongues. I wonder what he’s doing here with the daimyo?”

Racing forward, Lord Katsushige powerfully jerked backward his horse’s reign. Neighing as its long neck turned, the majestic white horse kicked up its front two legs high in the air. Katsushige sat balanced on the saddle as the horse moved around until eventually coming to a halt. Suspending two katana swords by his waist side, Katsushige wore an extravagant purple kimono with several patterns of the Nabeshima emblem printed in white. His lacquered cap resembled a paper sack, which was supported by strings tied under his chin. His pencil thin mustache gave him an aurora of privilege and power.

“What’s going on here?” Katsushige asked his official.

“Lord Katsushige,” the official replied. “We were here to close the kiln, but Yi Sam-pyeong refuses to leave.”

Ichinosei’s horse also came to a halt. “I’m looking for Jane!” he called, looking around. The merchant had a chonmage topknot haircut and wore a gray silk kimono.

“I’m here!” Jane lifted her head and raised her hand. “Did you get my letter?”

“Yes I did,” Ichinosei replied. “You wrote that a discovery has been made that will change the course of Japanese ceramics.” Ichinosei held up sheets of paper that were stapled at the corner. “You also provided a nice report.”

“We learned how to make business plans in my Advanced Business Administration class.” Jane smiled big. “I hope it helped.”

“Very helpful indeed,” Ichinosei praised. “If your financial forecasts are correct, the Nabeshima clan can make a great deal of money.”

“Master Yi,” Jane called, motioning toward the bowl. “Show them.”

Yi seemed confused for a moment. His hands trembled as he presented the bowl to Lord Katsushige.

Examining the bowl, Katsushige looked amazed. “Could this be?” He handed it to Ichinosei.

Ichinosei turned the bowl in his hands. “It’s not perfect,” he said, lifting it to the sunlight. “But it’s definitely porcelain.”

“Where did you find the kaolin?” Katsushige asked.

“It’s from Mount Izumi in Arita.” Yi’s voice was breaking.

“That’s right,” John whispered. “In 1616, Yi discovered kaolin deposits at Mount Izumi. It was the beginning of Japan’s porcelain industry and the Nabeshima clan would later become famous for their porcelain wares. Westerners called it Imari porcelain because it was exported from the Imari port, which was also part of the Nabeshima domain.”

The lady stopped combing her hair and looked toward the grayish tea bowl. “Japanese porcelain?” the lady amused. “Hmmm. I guess that changes my plans for a hot spring. It’s hard to justify a hot spring when they could be producing porcelain.”

“Lord Katsushige,” Ichinosei explained. “Japan imports most of its porcelain from China. The shipping charges make it prohibitively expensive. Thus, home made Japanese porcelain can generate a huge profit. Domestic sales alone would bring in so much wealth, not to mention international sales.”

“He read my business plan,” Jane tugged at John’s sleeves.

“Good work, Jane,” John commended.

The official looked incredulous. “Lord Nabeshima, the investment required to produce porcelain would be outrageous. We should not spend anymore money on Yi San-peongs promises.”

Katsushige pulled at his mustache and pondered. “That is true. It sounds risky.”

Persuasive argument, Jane thought back to her Social Studies class. “Lord Katsushige!” Jane called, without yet knowing exactly what to say.

Katsushige glared at Jane. “What is it, young woman?”

Jane gulped. “There’s much more than financial considerations. Remember, the Shogun loves porcelain. Imagine how happy he would be when you present him with the first porcelainware made in Japan.”

Katsushige paused for a moment and began to laugh hard. “Young woman, what you say is absolutely correct!” He looked toward Yi. “Are you sure we can make porcelainware like that in Korea?”

“Better than Korean porcelain, my Lord,” Yi replied. “The kaolin in Arita is extremely fine.”

“Okay, I understand.” Katsushige again began to laugh hard. “The Nabeshima clan will fully support your porcelain operation. Best of luck!”

“Yes, my Lord!” Yi bowed, touching his head to the ground, and began to sob. “Thank you. . . thank you.”

The lady slipped her moon-shaped comb into her thick kimono sash. “Well, it looks like a done deal,” She said, locking her eyes with Jane’s. “I guess my job is done here.” The lady clicked her fingers and vanished.

“Jane.” John’s voice softly echoed.

Wearing the ski goggles, Jane sat in the black swivel chair. “Huh?”

John lightly shook Jane’s shoulders.

Jane removed the goggles and gazed around the basement room with all the Japanese collectibles. “Dad, I had a weird dream.”

John chuckled. “You weren’t dreaming. You were using your imagination for a few minutes while observing the teacup.”

“A few minutes? It seemed like hours.”

“Your subconscious works really fast with the goggles, so minutes may seem like hours.”

“Oh my.” Jane bit her lips. “You were there, Dad.”

“No, I wasn’t,” he said, shaking his head. “Jane, it was your imagination. Everyone has a unique mind, which is personal and unknown to others. Although the goggle’s micro images provide additional information to the mind, each person processes that information differently. Therefore, imaginations are indeed special.”

“I met Toyo Morimura and Yi Sam-pyoeong,” Jane said. She continued describing what she had imagined.

John laughed. “Well, you’ve met several important people from the history of Japanese porcelain.” John reached into the container and grabbed another wrapped item. “Do you want to try another piece?”

“Of course!” Jane said, snatching the item from John’s hands.


To be continued.



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