Traditional Japanese tableware includes a huge spectrum of products like pottery, porcelain, and woodwork such as lacquerware. However, many of us likely have little to no idea of what defines and differentiates them, such as materials, whether or not they are microwave-safe, or how to take care of them. In this article, we will provide an in-depth explanation unpacking the characteristics and differences amongst Japanese pottery, porcelain, and lacquerware.

What Is the Biggest Difference Between Japanese Pottery, Porcelain, and Lacquerware?

The biggest difference amongst the three is material they are made from:

  • Japanese pottery is made of clay
  • Japanese porcelain is made of kaolin (soft, white clay)
  • Lacquerware is made of wood

Read on to discover more about the characteristics and differences between them.

Japanese Pottery: Simple and Rustic

Work by Bizen ware artist Naoto Tsuneki

Japanese pottery is largely distinguished by its uneven surface and rustic feel. Here are the three main characteristics of Japanese pottery:

Three Characteristics of Japanese Pottery

1. Earth-Colored and Rough

Japanese pottery is made from a type of clay known as "potter’s clay." As soil is used to make this clay, the surface of the finished work remains visibly rough and bumpy. Naturally, as the quality of soil differs between regions, distinctive variations in color and appearance occur depending upon the area of production. In addition, clay contains countless invisible holes on its surface, which has led many to call Japanese pottery “breathable wares.”

2. Won't Break or Deform Easily Even at High Temperatures

Japanese pottery is said to be more resistant to temperature differences than Japanese porcelain. This includes earthenware pots that can be directly placed upon fire.

3. Easy to Chip When Hit

As Japanese pottery is weaker than porcelain, it needs to be handled carefully. It can be easily chipped if bumped against a hard object.

Famous Production Areas and Recommended Japanese Pottery

While there are numerous regions all over Japan producing pottery, the areas producing Shigaraki ware, Bizen ware, and Tokoname ware are considered to be the most famous.

▶ More info: Naoto Tsuneki: Ceramist

Japanese Porcelain: White, Smooth, and Beautiful

Japanese porcelain has a white, smooth, and shiny surface. Here are the three main characteristics of Japanese porcelain:

Three Characteristics of Japanese Porcelain

1. Entirely White and Smooth

Japanese porcelain is made from kaolin, which is created through the combination of clay and a rock known as feldspar. Presenting a fine and consistent grain, kaolin is fired at high temperatures to yield a smooth and shiny surface.

2. Low Heat Retention

Japanese porcelain is often so thin that light can pass through the surface. Because of this, compared with Japanese pottery, porcelain is not recommended for hot dishes like soup as they become unbearable to hold while the contents inside will rapidly lose heat.

3. Does Not Chip Easily When Hit

As Japanese porcelain is fired at a high temperature, it tends to be dense and will not absorb water, making it stronger than most Japanese pottery.

Famous Production Areas and Recommended Japanese Porcelain

Famous Japanese porcelain regions include those making Arita ware, Kutani ware, and Seto ware. Unlike pottery, each has their own style of elegant painting and are smooth to the touch.

▶ More info: Marubun: Arita Ware

Lacquerware: A Distinctive Luster from Black and Red Paint

Instead of being fired in a kiln, Japanese lacquerware is instead created through a process of applying lacquer paint to wood to produce a glossy finish with a smooth texture suitable for tableware. Here are the three main characteristics of Japanese lacquerware:

Three Characteristics of Japanese Lacquerware

1. Unique Luster from the Lacquer

Unlike Japanese pottery or porcelain, lacquerware is made of wood. Upon a wooden base, layer upon layer of lacquer is coated on to create an enchanting gloss.

2. Light and Easy to Hold

Being made from wood, Japanese lacquerware is extremely light and easy to hold. Its texture and material also makes it difficult for heat to pass through, allowing one to safely hold it even with piping hot soup inside, making it perfect for hot dishes.

3. Cannot Be Used in a Dishwasher or Microwave

As lacquer is applied directly to the wood, putting it in a dishwasher or microwave may cause its color to change or peel off. As a general rule, it's best to keep Japanese lacquerware away from dishwashers and microwaves.

Famous Production Areas and Recommended Japanese Lacquerware

The most famous Japanese lacquerware regions produce Wajima lacquerware, Yamanaka lacquerware, Echizen lacquerware, and Kishu lacquerware. Each style is characterized by the number of lacquer coatings, the adorning paintings, and more.

▶ More info: Takumiichi: Producer

Precautions and Instructions When Using Japanese Pottery, Porcelain, and Lacquerware

When Using a Microwave Oven

・ Japanese Pottery

Japanese pottery is not as heavy-duty as Japanese porcelain, so frequent microwaving can cause cracking or chipping.

・Japanese Porcelain

Generally, there should be no problem using Japanese porcelain in the microwave. However, if the porcelain has gold or silver patterns, then absolutely do not put it inside a microwave.

・Japanese Lacquerware

Japanese lacquerware is extremely fragile against temperature changes, so do not use it in a microwave.

* Only use any of the above after carefully confirming their specifications, etc.

When Using the Dishwasher

・ Japanese Pottery and Porcelain

Generally speaking, there shouldn’t be any problem in using a dishwasher to wash Japanese pottery and porcelain. However, unglazed “suyaki” pottery and "yakishime," which is initially fired at high temperatures without glaze, also exist. Some of the most famous of these are Bizen and Shigaraki wares.

Many of these types of earthenware cannot be washed in a dishwasher as they may crack when quickly dried. However, we personally have washed Bizen ware cups and plates in a dishwasher at home without trouble. Therefore, you likely don't need to worry when using a dishwasher for these types of wares.

・Japanese Lacquerware

Japanese lacquerware should not be washed in a dishwasher. As it is made of wood, it may not be able to withstand temperature changes and drying in a dishwasher. The lacquer on the surface could peel off or the product itself could become deformed.

However, with the advent of new technology, Japanese lacquerware made using dishwasher-safe lacquer has recently become available, as shown below. If you want to use a dishwasher, definitely consider using this type of Japanese lacquerware!

Masano Echizen Lacquerware Dishwasher Safe Kyo-shaped Soup Bowl Ancient Vermilion

Source: Amazon.co.jp
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Caring For Your Japanese Craft

How to Take Care of Japanese Pottery

As Japanese pottery utilizes the texture of the soil, the surface of the ware is filled with fine, microscopic holes. Because of this, while rare, the color and smell of food can be absorbed into the product itself, so it is important to wash it as soon as you’re finished eating. Using bleach when washing pottery with drawings or images on the surface can cause discoloration, so do be careful.

How to Take Care of Japanese Porcelain

Japanese porcelain is much easier to wash compared with pottery and lacquerware. Its smooth surface allows dirt to be easily washed away using only regular dishwashing soap. However, it is fragile against sudden changes in temperature, so avoid using boiling water for sterilization.

With this in mind, for those who prefer a dishwasher, Japanese porcelain is the way to go for tableware!

How to Take Care of Japanese Lacquerware

Japanese lacquerware is very delicate, so refrain from using boiling water on it. Instead, wash it with lukewarm water that is about 30°C in temperature. In addition, soaking lacquerware in water for a long time could cause it to lose its shape. Make sure to wipe off water immediately after washing and let it dry naturally.

While using a soft sponge to wash Japanese lacquerware is completely fine, rubbing it with the hard side (shown in the photo above) may cause the item to lose its luster. Therefore, we recommend avoiding the use of this kind of sponge on Japanese lacquerware.

Learn Well and Treat Your Japanese Crafts Right!

As featured in this article, Japanese pottery, porcelain, and lacquerware each have their own distinctive advantages and characteristics. Appreciating their differences and using each to serve different kinds of foods is one of the main thrills leading many to start collecting traditional Japanese tableware! You too can liven up the table and make dining more fun by starting your own collection of Japanese pottery, porcelain, and lacquerware!

Related articles:

▶ How to Take Care of Your Tatami Mat or Rug

▶ Traditional Japanese Crafts: The Complete Guide to Japanese Ceramics

▶ Traditional Japanese Crafts: The Complete Guide to Japanese Lacquerware

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*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the retailer's website for more information.

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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