Inspiration and objects of comparison from Europe

Before taking a closer look at those Dutch trading ships, it seems worth to briefly consider the Portuguese impact on Japan in the mid 16th century in respect of our goblet.

In September 1543 a Portuguese trading ship lands unintended on a small island South of Kyushu. This first encounter with Japan is followed one year later with the landfall of Jesuit Fernao Mendes Pinto and 1549 Father Francis Xavier lands in Kagoshima with the prospect of proselytisation (Villiers 1993, p. 3ff). Presumably this priest and his comrades also carry church paraphernalia such as a Ciborium, a container for storing communion bread. A Ciborium, usually made from a precious metal, is a lidded, footed chalice, so it shares some similarities with ours. Yet, its bowl is much more globular. It may have reached central Japan and established the form 200 years before our goblet is manufactured. Yet, shouldn’t there be more expressions of this form, if it really had any importance for material culture in Japan?

More convincing seems the influence of the arrival and regular attendance of the Dutch trading ships and their cargo.

During the Edo Period foreign trade via ships of the VOC (Vereinigde Oost-Indische Companie, Dutch East India Company) meets the demand of paintings and decorative arts in Japan. Oka Yasumasa (2000, p. 141) points out that even if the objects were made in other parts of the world, they were received as things oranda (Japanese pronunciation of the Portuguese term for Holland) and often exhibited in karamonoya. Imported goods as textiles, medicines, sugar, European books and art triggered the so-called oranda shumi (Dutch taste) in all strata of the Japanese society, obviously only wealthier Japanese could afford to possess oranda shumi items (Oka 2000, p. 141f).

In decorative arts European earthenware was well liked. Its unknown shapes and decoration in pottery tableware being assumed exotic.

fig14: drawing of glass goblet

Fig. 14: Drawing of large glass “pokal” with engraving in: Bridging the Divide. 400 Years. The Netherlands – Japan

Aside from earthenware, glass products were popular. “Wine glasses with a twisted stem, bottles made of cut glass, empty wine bottles […] were with no doubt brought by Dutch ships” notes Oka (Oka 2000, p. 146) and then on display of above mentioned karamonoya. Famous rangakusha (scholar in Dutch, i.e. Western, learning) Ôtsuki Gentaku (1757-1827) dedicates a chapter in his book “An explanation of the Dutch” (Ransetsu benwaku, 1799) to the subject glass. And in this section we find the drawing and description of a glass chalice that resembles our goblet (Oka 2000, p. 142). But not only the quality of the glass, in this case adorned with cuttings, must have been fascinating, probably also the shape, reminiscenting faintly of above mentioned offering containers in Buddhist temples, caught admiration.

In Europe, this glass-goblet’s shape is considered by Klein (1987, p. 122) as the standard type of European drinking glasses up from approximately 1710. The large dimensions, concave upwards foot, long stem and lid on top seem typical for a German Pokal. This shape in the West too arose from footed offering bowls used in ancient Egypt (van Gelder 1955, p. 12).

Those Pokals are often quite unadorned, only with one or more knobs in the stem, sometimes glass engravings in bowl and lid. The glass of a Pokal is usually blown in parts and the interfaces, after heating up again, glued to each other in order to achieve a tall, vertical alignment. The knob in the stem not only agglutinates the stem with the bowl, but also adds some weight to the base in order to make a large, thick bowl statically possible. Aside from the knobs the stem may also be festooned with applied strands of coloured glass to ensure stability.

This glass goblet and our chalice share exteriorly as many similarities as disparities. Both are furnished with foot, stem, bowl and lid with knob. They are aligned vertically and similarly proportioned. But again, the intrinsic qualities of both materials ask for different processing and thus different expressions in shape. Whereas the glass goblet needs to be pieced together at visible points, the bamboo goblet gets its shape by long vertical strips that reach from foot to the upper rim, resulting in a smooth, brandished shape, interrupted by flat adornments within the plaiting pattern. The weight also differs immensely. Not only are large north European drinking glasses in the 18th and 19th ct. still made from comparably thick glass, it is also necessary to implement a certain gauge in order to achieve stability. For the bamboo plaiting, weight is not an espoused factor. Its lightness even adds amazement to the haptic sensation.

In respect of durability both vessels are prone to disaggregation, yet by different circumstances. Whereas glass itself may easily break in pieces when hitting a hard surface, the bamboo goblet may survive due to its flexibility with only some strips broken. Climate and insects may not infringe the glass goblet, but form one of the major threats to the one made of bamboo, being a vegetable fibre easily damageable by mould or insect attacks. Both containers may survive centuries only with precautious treatment or storage in a box.

In regards of decoration the glass goblet becomes adorned with knobs in the stem and engravings on bowl and lid, while the bamboo chalice is mainly embellished within the plaiting pattern.

Concerning the usage, the glass chalice is waterproof, thus ideal as a drinking container. The bamboo goblet’s interior is due to the lacquer finish water resistant but probably not waterproof, thus more suitable for semi-hard comestible goods, such as fruits or sweets, as suggested by Fisscher in his catalogue.

In brief, the glass Pokal – or any other resembling glass goblet that came across the artisan’s way – most likely imbued the artisan, responsible for our bamboo goblet. Doubtless it was a challenge to imbed the vertically aligned Western form into an attractive Japanese design. The goblet, behold from a distance, seems to be lengthy and high in form and proportion, looked upon it from close, it reveals the horizontal faced plaiting pattern. Like that it represents a strange contradiction between two aesthetic ideals in East and West, and even more if we take the difference of brittle exterior and sleek interior into account. Indeed, this ambiguity must have steepened the costumer’s interest in our bamboo goblet vastly.


Next: Inspiration and objects of comparison with European roots in Japan



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