Imari porcelain was made in more than a dozen Japanese villages, but the name is that of the port from whence it was shipped to Europe.
Imari porcelain is the European collectors' name for Japanese porcelain wares made in the town of Arita, in the former Hizen Provence, northwestern Kyushu, and exported from the port of Imari, Saga specifically for the European export trade.
Imari was simply the trans-shipment port for Arita wares. The kilns at Arita formed the heart of the Japanese porcelain industry, which developed in the 17th century, after the white kaolin clay was discovered in 1616 by abducted Korean potter Yi Sam Pyong. Yi Sam Pyong was kidnapped along with several thousand other Korean artisans by Japanese invaders during the Seven Year War of 1592-1598. Arita soon came to rival the output of the Chinese kilns at Ching-te-Chen. Blue and white porcelain made at Arita was also widely exported to Europe through the Dutch East India Company, but "Imari porcelain" connotes wares more specifically designed to catch the European taste.
Though sophisticated wares in authentic Japanese styles were being made at Arita for the fastidious home market, European export porcelains made use of enamel colors over underglazes of cobalt blue and iron red. The ware often used copious gilding, sometimes with spare isolated spirgged vignettes, but often densely patterned in compartments. Globular Imari teapots with swan-necked spouts helped establish the classic European form for these new necessities of life.
Early experiments with overglaze colored enamels at Arita are associated with the famous Sakaida Kakiemon (1596-1666), whose name is memorialized in "Kakiemon" ware. Dutch traders had a monopoly on the insatiable export trade, the first large order being placed at Arita by the Dutch East India Company in 1656. The trade peaked in the late 17th century and was slowly replaced by Chinese kilns in the early 18th century, as social conditions in China settled with the full establishment of the Ying Dynasty. Very fine "Chinese Imari" export wares were produced in the 18th century, eclipsing the original Japanese exports.
Early Imari porcelains are characterized by simple, underglaze blue designs (sometsuke) that draw on Chinese motifs; these are callled Shoki Imari and were made from the early 17th century. There is an elegant charm in these early wares, which often show rabbits or landscapes on the milky-white porcelain. Shoki Imari, with cylindrical, wide-lipped soba-choko are the favored shape.