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The History Of Tetsubin

Document Collated: Guan Zhi Liang

During a period of about 150 years up to World War II, cast-iron teapots with handle and spout, called "tetsubin", were popular in Japan both as everyday household utensils and for informal and semi-formal tea drinking. Most of them, although made with care, were not considered objects of great artistic consequence. Sparingly decorate, they simply served to heat water for the household, and for that purpose they were hung over the fire or placed on a "hibachi".

During the second half of the nineteenth century, when the serving of infused tea became increasingly popular, those tetsubin which were especially made as tea utensils came to be more highly esteemed. They were often elaborately decorated either with cast-iron ornament in high relief, or with inlay of copper, gold and/or silver.

Such pieces may be found in private collections or museums in the West. They appeal to European taste, not only because they are easily identified as "teapots", but also because they are sometimes magnificent examples of Japanese iron work. However, the number of these kettles found in Western museums, including major institutions, is relatively small and limited to four or five dozen in total. Privately owned tetsubin are usually restricted to small collections, but it is my impression that in Holland, for example, there must be hundreds of people who have one or more. In western Europe, there are to my knowledge three larger private tetsubin collections, ranging in size from twenty to eighty pieces.

Tetsubin are only occasionally menuonca in European languages and then in a range of different contexts. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, when Japan entered a new phase of its history due to intensive international contacts, several authors visiting Japan described various aspects of Japanese life, covering the most divergent subjects. Classified list of all books, essays and maps relating to Japan published in European languages from 1859 to 1893 and from 1906 to 1926, were compiled by F. Von Wenckstern and Oskar Nachod respectively. Those on metalwork, tea ceremony and manners and customs, in total a couple dozen works, were considered to be of particular interest for the purpose of this current work, but tetsubin do not seem to have drawn much attention. The same is true of such standard works as Japan, Its History, Arts and Literature by Captain F. Brinkley and Things Japanese by B. H. Chamberlain, in which the tetsubin is not even mentioned.

The first reference to tetsubin in European literature was made by J. J. Rein, a German geographer, who published Japan Nach Resien und Studien in 1886, based on a residence in the country in the years 1874 and 1875, and almost simultaneously by E. S. Morse, and American zoologist, in his Japanese Homes and their Surroundings. Rein specifies that "tetsubin, made of cast iron with a bronze lid, were produced in Kyoto by Kin Ju Do and in Ozaka by Riobundo." He also describes the appearance of inlay work on the body of these kettles and mentions that a special surface treatment is necessary to make this possible. He produces a photograph of such a kettle, which by then was part of the collection of the Royal Museum of Art in Berlin. Morse provides drawings of the way tetsubin were used to heat water, hanging them over the fireplace, suspended for example by a chain.

Another contemporary author, W. Gowland, a British metallurgist, read a paper before the members of the Japan Society of London in 1899 under the title Metals and Metal Working in Old Japan in which he briefly mentioned tetsubin. He focused attention on the fact that copper was used as decorative metal on vessels and utensils for domestic use and showed a tetsubin, as "a kettle for heating water, richly decorated with leafy scrolls in repouss? work, and bearing a fine brown patina" to illustrate this.

It is remarkable that in books on tea in Japan the tetsubin is almost totally neglected. Even a general work like All About Tea by W. H. Ukers, with more than 1000 pages of which more than half arc devoted to tea in China and Japan, does not even mention tetsubin as a tea utensil, although ample attention is paid to infused tea.

An exception in this respect is found in the work of A. Berliner, Der Teekult in Japan, where mention is made in passing of the fact that when the tea ceremony (chanoyu) takes place outside the tearoom, a tea box (chabako) is used together with a tetsubin, instead of the usual earring-held kettle (kama) from which water is taken out with a bamboo ladle.

This lack of regard for tetsubin among tea connoisseurs is regretted by R. Castile in The Way of Tea when he says, "there is little information available on this utensil, an unfortunate omission, for it is the tetsubin which students first learn to use."

More recently (1981) the author of Japanese Teapots, published by Kodansha, briefly refers to "cast iron tea kettles" and the way they were used while in the Japan Handbuch, edited by Horst Hammitzsch, tetsubin are mentioned as iron kettles but from the photograph shown it must be assumed that they have been confused with kama.

In Japan there is only limited awareness of tetsubin among ordinary people. Those who were born before World War II often remember the tetsubin as it was used in the household, but cannot usually provide further information.

In an important reference book on the handicrafts of Japan called Nihon no Kogei (1967), one volume is devoted to "kinko (metalwork)". Considerable attention is paid to the traditional technique of kama manufacture in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. This area is also famous for its tetsubin (Nambu tetsubin), made according to the traditional method. Hence valuable information on this technique of tetsubin manufacture is available.

The 18-volume encyclopedia Dai Nihon Hyakka Jiten should also be mentioned as an important general reference work. The entry "tetsubin" provides general information on the shape, the fact that bronze lids are often applied, that gold and silver inlay decorations are not uncommon, and so on. But some remarks are also made on the history of the tetsubin, to which reference will be made in later parts of this work, beyond this introduction as and when they are appropriate.

It must be concluded therefore that knowledge of the tetsubin, as a product of applied art in Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth century is incomplete. No systematic approach, placing tetsubin in their cultural and social context and covering their historical development as tea and household utensil, together with the techniques of their manufacture, is available either in Japanese or in a Western language. It is the aim of this work to provide such a survey.

The main points, selected for the present study, can be expressed in the following questions:

1. When did tetsubin appear in Japan?

2. Is there anything to say about the circumstances which gave rise to its birth?

3. Were there special factors which determined its shape and material?

4. How did it develop as a tea and household utensil?

5. Can criteria be defined for a practical classification of tetsubin?

6. As objects, how were they looked at in Japan? Were there specific features which made some kettles more appreciated than others?

7. What were the centers of tetsubin manufacture and who were the artists involved?

8. What was the social and economic status of these casters?

9. How were tetsubin made?

10. What was the influence of the introduction of Western techniques in Japan on tetsubin manufacture.

By dealing with these questions the main events are followed up to World War II, because thereafter, for various reasons, tetsubin no longer played a role of any importance. After 1945, and even today, tetsubin were and are made almost exclusively in the Morioka area, on a relatively small scale, but their use as tea utensils is very restricted. Therefore, in listing the names of casters involved in tetsubin manufacture, those of whom it is known that they (or their shop) were still active after World War II are specifically indicated in later portions of this work.

A further restriction is the fact that the possible influence of events and developments in China has not been investigated. Nevertheless, at some point Chinese influences are briefly mentioned where they seem to be essential for an understanding of developments in Japan.

Two areas of Japanese culture are strongly related to tetsubin, namely tea and iron. In dealing with the history of tea, it was decided to enter only into the particulars of infused tea (sencha), because not much has been written on that subject in a Western language, and to leave the details of powdered tea (matcha) to the many books on that topic. The history of iron culture in Japan, at present the subject of in-depth investigation by Japanese historians, was considered beyond the scope of this work. Tetsubin were made of "pig iron" This pig iron was made by a traditional Japanese process in a tatara furnace, or, after the Restoration of 1868, in Western furnaces by then established at many places in Japan. The essentials of the traditional process of pig iron manufacture have been outlined in later parts of this work, where superficial details of the historical development are also provided.

Finally, no detailed study of the decoration on tetsubin is given here. Often, in collections, tetsubins are met with ornaments modeled in high relief, or inlay of copper or silver. Ample attention is paid in this work to the historical developments which played a role in that respect and the techniques which were used, but the decorative motifs and designs have not been considered.

As to the methods used to answer the questions listed above, four main lines have been followed, First, in the course of about five years as many tetsubin as possible in collections, both museum and private, have been studied, in total about three hundred. They provide a mass of information on shape, general styling, technical particularities, signatures and seal marks. But only a few of them could be more or less reliably dated. Intensive study of actual pieces without any supplementary knowledge can lead to elaborate and perhaps convincing but often wholly inaccurate theories of chronology. It was because of such problems that the comparison of pieces as such was considered an insufficient basis for building an accurate chronology of tetsubin, the more so because marks on pieces had to be treated with the caution due to all marks and signatures. Secondly, as tetsubin have not yet received a treatment which could be called definitive, within in Western language or in Japanese, it was necessary to screen scattered information on the subject from as many sources as possible, dealing with tea drinking, manners, customs. arts and in Japan, it was realized that, as far as written information is concerned, Japanese documentation and historical records arc probably reliable only if no element of self-interest is involved. Otherwise, they arc dubious. As an extenuating circumstance in this respect, one has to bear in mind the extreme importance attached to tradition in Japan, which makes it less surprising that the Japanese craftsman should so often have been able to produce a long artistic ancestry. On the other hand, Western documentation, especially if complied during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is also sometimes difficult to use. It is not always certain whether the writer knew what he was talking about. Under the circumstances, if I relied on these sources, I was likely to make mistakes, but nonetheless it was worthwhile to proceed with due caution.

Another source of information was the large corpus of Japanese books, prints and paintings.They provide useful illustrations which were particularly valuable because they were all dated.

I also value what was told me in conversation by people I met in Japan, while I was searching for historical details pertaining to tetsubin. In cases where certain details were already known to me, I considered verbal information as a further confirmation. Otherwise, I mention such details in the text as the opinion of the speaker and leave them as they are.

Next, details about the process of manufacturing tetsubin had to be collected in the foundries of northern Japan (Morioka area), where traditional techniques are still kept alive. This was done during two periods of about four weeks each, in 1984 and 1986, while literature on the subject, not available in European libraries, was also traced.

Finally, for aspects of metallurgy, metallographic examination of the metal structure, instead of the more frequent chemical analysis, was adopted as the principle approach. This is mainly because the latter method involves relatively high costs and would have been less effective.