Antique Japanese Tea Cups: A Brief Collector's Guide

Updated July 1, 2021
Antique Japanese Tea Cups

Antique Japanese teacups are beautiful examples of Asian craftsmanship from generations that have long since passed. These long-lasting and elegant pieces of porcelain have been collected by the Western world since the mid-20th century, and they've remained popular into the 21st century. Take a look at these finely designed antiques and get a sense for which style you'll start looking for next.


Japanese teacups and other pieces began to be exported to Europe beginning in the 1500s following European and Japanese contact. Some teacups may be marked with Japanese characters identifying these different dynasties, and if you're not fluent in the different Japanese written dialects, then you'll want to have your pieces assessed and translated. Here are the various dynasties in which Japanese tea cups have been manufactured in.

  • Momoyama: 1573 - 1603
  • Edo: 1603 - 1867
  • Meiji: 1868 - 1913
  • Taisho: 1913 - 1926
  • Showa: 1926 - 1988

While a teacup marked with the Japanese character for a dynasty can help you estimate its age, it's also important to note the type of teacup and the patterns on the cup itself as these characteristics can help give you an idea of what city the cups were created in, as collectors are more concerned with that information.

Types and Patterns

Japanese teacups come in hundreds of patterns which are often identified with the city of origin rather than other characteristics like patterns, age, motifs, and so on. These are a few of the different types of antique Japanese tea cups you might come across.

  • Bizen pieces - These teacups are decorated with humorous figures of gods, animals, and birds.
  • Kutani pieces - These teacups are characterized by elaborate decorations in gold, red, and other vibrant colors.
  • Satsuma pieces - These teacups have a crackled, ivory luster finish and are decorated with a picture of Japanese craftsmen painting vases at a table.
  • Imari pieces - These teacups usually have an underglaze of blue and rusty red on a white ground. Leaves and flowers are also prominently featured.

Moriage Decorative Techniques

Moriage is a type of decoration that has been used on Japanese pottery for centuries. It is a process of delicately layering clay on pottery to create intricate, raised designs. The pottery may then be painted in vibrant colors or have gold leaf added to them, and given its delicate construction, this type of pottery is easily damaged if not handled carefully. Not all Moriage pieces are antique, so always know who you are buying from and learn as much about the authentic antique pieces as you can. A famous type of Moriage is called Dragonware; this type of Moriage features dragon designs created with the Moriage technique and was replicated by many manufacturers.

Moriage Decorative Techniques

Manufacturers' Marks

Although there were hundreds of manufacturers, some are better known and highly collectible than the rest. They can often be identified by the individual backstamps, but there are hundreds of these. Here is an assortment of Japanese marks but the collector will want a more comprehensive reference such as, Imari, Satsuma and Other Japanese Export Ceramics by Nancy N. Schiffer. Despite the vast number of varying marks from maker to maker, there are some unique marks you can find which'll help you better date a piece.

Manufacturers' Marks Infographic


Many of the antique teacups that you find may have a Nippon mark on the bottom. This indicates that the piece was made in Japan between 1891 and 1921. Nippon doesn't refer to a company or a place; rather it refers to the era in which the piece was made. The Nippon pieces were made primarily for export; little of it was used by the Japanese people themselves. Items that were made during this period are inscribed with either NIPPON or Made in NIPPON and may also come with other Japanese scripted notations. This was implemented in response to the United States passing the McKinley Tariff, which required that all imported goods be marked in English with the country where they originated. Beware of sellers that use the label Nippon for any Japanese porcelain or pottery, as only the items that're specifically marked/inked Nippon are authentic. In terms of value, porcelain with these markings are considered to be worth more than those with the Made in Japan stamp that can also be found on pieces from this period.

Made in Japan

Eventually U.S. Customs ruled that Nippon was no longer an acceptable term for imported Japanese china. Beginning in August 1921, all imported goods sent to the United States from Japan had to be backstamped with the written notations: Japan or Made in Japan. These marks were used until 1941 when World War II began and the United States placed an embargo on Japanese products, eventually lifting in the wake of the war and America's own occupation of the island nation.

Occupied Japan

Beginning in 1945 all Japanese pieces that were imported into the United States were backstamped with the words Occupied Japan. Although the United States occupied Japan until 1952, the Customs Bureau began allowing imports to be marked in one of the following ways:

  • Occupied Japan
  • Made in Occupied Japan
  • Made in Japan
  • Japan

However, collectors of artifacts from this period prefer goods which either have the Made in Occupied Japan or Occupied Japan marks, as these can be directly linked to the few years that the United States occupied the country in the immediate post-war period. People who don't have a specialty in Japanese porcelain are attracted to Occupied Japan pieces because they're some of the most visible in the western world and have such close ties to World War II.

Manufacturers Operating in Occupied Japan

Eastern Asia is well-known for its porcelain and fine-china exports, and there were thousands of skilled manufacturers from the region who've contributed to the hundreds of years worth of impressive artifacts. Here are just a few of these talented studios who created pieces under occupation in the late 1940s-early 1950s:

  • Jyoto
  • Chubu
  • Saji
  • Mikado
  • Kutani
  • Noritake
  • Sango
  • Ardalt

Where to Buy Antique Japanese Tea Cups

Buying antique Japanese teacups that were made after 1891 isn't difficult; they can be found in most antique shops or online. The markings make it easy to identify the era, if not the exact manufacturer. Buying very old teacups, however, can be daunting. Make sure that you deal with an antique dealer that is experienced in oriental antiques and has good references.

  • Sanai Fine Art and Antiques - This organization specializes in the acquisition and sale of Japanese porcelain.
  • J Collector - This Etsy seller has many different Japanese and Asian antiques including a large selection of Japanese porcelain.
  • Kodo Arts - This website has a variety of antique Japanese pieces for sale.

Antique and Vintage Japanese Tea Cup Values

Although it can be tempting to try to evaluate your Japanese antiques on your own using the wonderful world of the internet, you should have an appraiser look over your piece to have it fully authenticated. Similarly, if you're interested in purchasing a new tea cup or saucer set, you should see if the piece has undergone any authentication process in the past. Given that there has been a significant rise in the sophistication of fake porcelains, you want to make sure that you're getting what you pay for. In terms of values, thankfully there are quite a lot of affordable imported pieces from the early and mid-20th century which people collecting on a budget can find. For instance, one seller has an occupied Japan teacup and saucer listed for a little over $10; yet, more extensive sets, like this 10 piece teacup set, as well as those made prior to the 20th century can be worth a few hundred dollars.

Add a Touch of Elegance to Your Home

Collecting antique Japanese teacups and other porcelain items allows you to enjoy some of the finest Eastern craftsmanship from the comforts of your very own home. Since there's a lot of vintage Japanese porcelain on the market, you're sure to find the exact piece to best fit with your domestic aesthetic and your tea-drinking habits.

Antique Japanese Tea Cups: A Brief Collector's Guide