by Rose Kahele
photo by Kyle Rothenborg
“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘This is Japanese?!’” says Honolulu antiques dealer Yasuko Harada of the colorful and ornate Noritake china of the early 1900s. “It’s so different.” But yes, it was Japanese. Before camcorders and Camrys, even before Hitachis and hibachis, there was Noritake china, arguably Japan’s first made-for-export product. The outlandishly designed, intricately detailed Western-style porcelain dinnerware was manufactured at the Nippon Toki Kaisha factory in the little village of Noritake just outside of Nagoya. It was made by a company founded by Baron Ichizaemon Morimura, a progressive nobleman who became convinced—after travels through the United States in the 1870s and a visit to the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris—that Europeans and Americans wanted and needed affordable fine china. He paired American designers with inexpensive and highly skilled Japanese craftsmen, and Noritake china was born.
Until recently, the porcelain was largely looked down upon by dealers and collectors, who considered it a cheap imitation. But in the mid-’90s, collector Joan Van Patten authored a series of books that chronicled and catalogued the finely crafted porcelain; several years later, as Japanese collectors discovered their country’s forgotten export, a buying spree ensued.
Yasuko, who with her husband Wataru, owns and runs the Kaka‘ako Japanese antique shop Garakuta-Do, has been collecting and selling antique Noritake since 2000. To date, she has purchased approximately 5,000 pieces. She’s sold about 3,000, nearly all to a small store in Tokyo’s Ginza district or to Japanese buyers who contact her through the Internet. But even though she sends daily shipments to Japan, her husband still likes to tease her about her large inventory. “I still have so many pieces, because I have too much love,” says Yasuko in her defense. “If I sell too many, ten or twenty years from now, I won’t have any nice pieces left, and I love them all!”