Sumida Pottery
By Mike McLeod

Chances are, you have encountered Sumida pottery during a treasure hunt. But because it is found in a wide variety of shapes and forms and called by many names, you may not have immediately recognized this exquisite export pottery from Japan.

Sumida is not typical Japanese pottery. In fact, it is almost diametrically opposed to traditional Japanese tastes of minimalism and delicacy. And for good reason. Sumida was created specifically to be sold outside the Land of the Rising Sun. Not long after Commodore Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan to trade in 1853, Oriental collectibles became the rage of the Victorian world. A proper Victorian home had an Oriental room or parlor, or at least a corner of a room, displaying ceramics, fine china, Oriental screens, ivory and other such knick-knacks. Sumida pottery would often be found there.

Sumida pottery is characteristically heavy, and usually, it has applied three-dimensional figures. Other characteristics of Sumida as defined in the excellent book by Herbert Karp and Gardner Pond, Sumidaaccording to us, include: "The most common are (Sumida) items whose upper half (or less) is partially glazed with a flambé glaze or glazed with two or more colors in a splashed application. Often, the glaze has run, creating curtains or droplets. The unglazed portion of the body is painted." However, some pieces are entirely glazed while others are bisque.

The applied figures range from plants (flowers, trees, bamboo) and animals (elephants, dragons, tigers, deer, lions, bears, foxes, wolves and more) to landscapes (caves-yes, caves represented by holes, sometimes for handles, other times just holes-homes, mountains, lakes, and especially rock formations like ledges, boulders, steep hillsides, etc.). Also, a wide range of humans are often depicted-peasants, martial artists, women in kimonos, pilgrims, government officials, rakan (Buddhist disciples, ascetics), children and more. However, the animal most often seen is the monkey.

Many scenes on Sumida pottery depict fables from Japanese folklore. The monkey is a common figure in many of those fables because of their human-like actions of caring for the young, stealing and interacting with one another in a community. Indeed, one magnificent example by Inoue Ryosai in the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Fla., has 354 applied monkey figures swarming over homes in a village. Another fabulous piece by Ishiguro Koko stands 48 inches high and exhibits 500 rakan. In 1899, it won first prize in an exhibition in Tokyo, and it now resides in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Mass.

The intricacy of the applied figures is often amazing. In the earlier works, individual features on faces can be seen in detail. Eyes, lips, teeth and even tongues have been fashioned. Later on, perhaps when demand required mass or faster production, the features were often drawn, with only a line for the mouth, for instance

How the potters could create these "works of art" in a great variety of styles and substantial quantities is beyond me. The time and effort invested in many pieces would seem to make the cost prohibitive, especially when you consider that each piece changed hands through distributors at least twice, if not several times, before making it to the final buyer.

Even more astounding is the great breadth of the work. Sumida pottery can be found as vases (in a gigantic range of styles and shapes), bowls (with and without pedestals), pots, jardinieres, jars (with and without lids), footed containers, baskets, incense burners, teapots and tea services, coffee and chocolate pots and cups, saki pots, pitchers, jugs, smoking sets, humidors and tobacco jars, ashtrays (some with match strikes), ships of good fortune, figures (Buddha, fishermen, warriors, wrestlers, religious and political figures, etc.), tankards, mugs (with one, two or three handles), inkwells, hanging vessels, lamp bases, chamber light candle holders, table ornaments, hair receivers, chopsticks holders, and more.

Sumida pottery has often been called by many names-Poo ware, Sumidagawa, Banko, or Asakusa Banko. Sumida acquired its name from the Sumida River that runs through the Asakusa district of Tokyo. It was near the banks of this river where it was first made. The Japanese word for river is gawa, hence the name Sumidagawa. Sumidagawa is a softer, raku pottery created in the early 1800s. Poo ware was the product of a Shekwan potter, Poo You-she, whose patterns were similar to those of Sumida. "Banko" was the general term given to the Japanese export or souvenir ware sold in Tokyo.

But whatever you hear it called, once you gain an eye for Sumida, you will also gain a great respect for the potters who created it. Although there were several potters who fashioned Sumida, the three most prominent were Hara Gozan, Ishiguro Koko, and Inoue Ryosai. Their marks are inscribed in kanjis, or modified Chinese character symbols. The marks can be found on the base or side of the pottery or on a white tile affixed to the piece. Kanjis are often difficult for non-Asians to decipher. Fortunately, many of the different marks used by each of the potters are included in Sumida...according to us. However, not all pieces are marked.

Sumida pottery enjoyed its heyday between the late 1800s and the 1920s. It was still produced until World War II and briefly after the war. Pieces can be found that are marked "Nippon," "Made in Japan," and "Foreign." In 1890, the McKinley Act required foreign goods to be so marked. The ware was then marked Nippon.

In 1921, the government required all products to be marked in English, so "Made in Japan" appeared. Those words were also printed on paper and attached, but paper marks are rarely found these days. Co-author Herbert Karp has found only one in his many years of collecting. It was affixed to a lamp base, and for many years it had been hidden by a wooden stand at the bottom of the lamp, which actually protected the paper mark from fading and wear.

Sumida pieces marked "Foreign" were exported to England.

After Sumida fell from popularity, people packed them away, threw them away or got rid of them. This is one reason why Sumida turns up in out-of-the-way antique shops.

"If you look for it, you'll find it," said Karp.

A variety of pieces can be found on eBay, enough so that it has its own site. But because Sumida is fairly rare and not well known, much misinformation is given about it. Fakes are few, but they do exist. Karp cautioned that collectors should research a piece before bidding on it. Beware of descriptions (particularly on eBay) that use the words Sumida-like. A prevalent problem is pottery being presented as Sumida that is not.

Sumida is still somewhat obscure, yet it is valuable. Smaller, more common pieces sell for a few hundred dollars and higher. Larger examples, usually 15 inches and taller, are valued in the thousands of dollars, depending on the piece. Some of the more intricate pieces command prices above six thousand dollars.

As I said, you've probably seen Sumida in the past. Now when you do, you will have a greater understanding and appreciation for this obscure and ornate Japanese
export pottery.

Sumida on the cover
Mothers, maids, children - 24 figures surround 19-in. vase, Ishiguro Koko, $4,500-$6000.
17-in. handle vase with monkeys looking up at airplane inside top of handle; pilot is a monkey; Ryosai, $3,500-$4,500
Ten 7-in. tall figures on 4 x 15 in. bowl, $1,450-$1,950.

All Photos courtesy Herbert Karp and Gardner Pond, unless otherwise noted.

12-in. vase, 2 boys on a bridge, Ryosai, $550-$800.

Magnificent vase with 354 monkeys swarming a village; Inoue Rosai, 29 inches tall.
(Photo courtesy, Lightner Museum, St. Augustine, Fla.)

Teapots by Ryosai (l., $450-$550) and Koko (r., $550-$800),
about 4 inches.

Rakan figure (Buddhist disciple), identified by the long ear lobes and eyebrows, exposed chest, and emaciation from asceticism; Hara Gozan, 11 1/2 inches, $3,500-$4,500.

20-in. vase, crane and flowers, Koko, $4,000-$5,000.

Woven-finished body and bamboo-finish legs vase, lady with 3 children; by Gozan, $800-$1,050.

SUMIDA...according to us by Herbert Karp and Gardner Pond (192 pages and 700 photos, ISBN # 1-57080-085-5)) can be purchased directly from the publisher, Antique Publications, by calling 800-238-7404 or by visiting the website

The hardcover version is $59.95, plus S&H, and the paperback edition is $44.95, plus S&H. (S&H is $7.95 for the first book and 50¢ for each additional book.)


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