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Former prime minister’s pride of pots

Morihiro Hosokawa has found a new career for himself in ceramics

by Robert Yellin

“On a sunny day I go to the fields, and, when it rains, I read. Simple enough, isn’t it?” Sounds like the words of a cute obachan out in the countryside, but these are the words of former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa who now leads a quiet, secluded life.

Hosokawa was the founder of the Japan New Party (Nihon Shinto) and prime minister in 1993-4. This man, who hails from a famous family, is now turning the wheel to create simple and deep chawan, a tea bowl fit for a daimyo, or feudal lord. I met up with him in early February in the hills of Yugawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, where his grandparents built a mountain retreat to which he has added a pottery studio.

When was your first encounter with yakimono?

Six years ago after I quit politics I returned here [to Yugawara]. A friend of mine who is a potter was having an exhibition in Ginza, and I went to see it. This potter is connected to Masako Shirasu. When I was viewing the works, I thought, “I bet making these pieces is quite enjoyable.” Up until that point I admired yakimono from afar and had always thought making pottery was a difficult thing to do, such as firing a noborigama [multichambered wood-fueled climbing kiln]. Yet my friend told me, “Look, it isn’t that difficult.” Soon thereafter, I ventured off to his studio and discovered he fired in an electric kiln, and I felt making yakimono wasn’t as difficult as I had thought. I then realized I had enough space to create a workshop. That was the first time I ever thought about becoming a potter.

Up until that time you had had some contact with the tea world and its vessels, hadn’t you?

Actually, not at all. After I visited his studio, I went out and bought lots of ceramic art magazines and searched through them for contemporary potters making works that I, too, would like to create. That’s when I discovered Shiro Tsujimura. As a matter of fact, I wanted to make works inspired by the Momoyama Period [1568-1715] and the Korean Choson Dynasty, and I searched for potters whose works were closest to the ceramic art of those periods. For Choson-inspired wares, I found the potter Togo Kobayashi.

Without hesitation I decided to call Tsujimura. I heard that he marched to a different tune and didn’t take in apprentices, so I just asked if I could visit and see his works. He agreed and picked me up at Yakushiji in Nara. When I first saw him, I thought he was a yakuza driving up in his Porsche. (Laughs.)

As it turns out, I did become his apprentice and stayed there for a year and a half.

What were the important things you learned there?

I sat next to Tsujimura at another wheel each day and watched him throw from 6 in the morning to 7 at night. I did as well. His studio is really quite dirty! For example, he had a hand rag he hadn’t washed for years, and it was black as night. He would nonchalantly dip it into a bucket of stagnant slimy pond water and wipe his face. He led a wild life. After 18 months there one morning, I woke up and said to myself, “Enough of this,” and I received my diploma.

Yet you learned much there over that period?

Oh yes, I learned more than I thought I could. If I had gone to another potter, they would have felt obliged to treat this former prime minister with flattery and useless criticism. They would have treated me all too well, and even if I had made a lousy piece, they would have said, “My gosh, this is really good.” Yet Tsujimura is not that type of person at all, he’s very rough with simple tastes. He would see my work and shout, “This won’t do!” or “You stupid old man!” Not many people have called me that before. (Laughs.) People who know Tsujimura were quite surprised that I lasted as long as I did. It was tough, though, as his house is also self-built and at night bats fly in!

Quite a different world from Nagatacho.

(Laughs.) Oh yes, yet it was there I discovered the joy of using a wheel and creating works.

After your time there, did you study under anyone else?

No, I didn’t, I mean, I went to other potters, but I would stay just for a night or so. My study was mainly with Tsujimura. I did some raku with Sadamitsu Sugimoto in Shigaraki, Shiga prefecture, and I learned about Korai (Korean-style) chawan from Kobayashi, but not about throwing techniques. I already had basic wheel skills, so I went to these other potters simply to learn about glazes and how to fire different kilns. I also went to Kanazawa [which is home to many pottery traditions].

At present you are basically making tea wares, correct?

Yes, I simply love chatou [tea pottery]. In fact, I also make sake flasks, teacups and plates, but I mean to make them within the range of tea utensils used in a kai seki meal (the small meal that precedes a Way of Tea gathering).

It’s important to study the great chawan of the past in order to understand this grand tradition. It’s said the greatest chawan were made by Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637) and Chojiro (the first raku potter); what do you think of their chawan?

I’m actually aiming for Koetsu and Chojiro as models. In fact, I’ve been making many raku chawan and I don’t call them raku, but kuro (black) or aka (red) chawan in order to make the distinction from raku. I don’t care for the second generation’s chawans [made by the second raku potter -- the raku family is now in its 15th generation]; they tend to have this extra gloss about them. I love Chojiro’s worn-out, matte-textured chawan. I’m actually trying to surpass Chojiro!

Besides that, I like Shino, which sold quite well at my Mitsukoshi exhibition [in Nov.-Dec. 2004] along with my Ido chawan.

What feelings are important in your work as you aim for the classic styles just mentioned?

I think potters in the Momoyama and Edo periods, like Koetsu and Chojiro, really had keen minds and a positive way of thinking and living in their surroundings. Koetsu, for example, was from a wealthy family, but he really had a simple life, rejecting luxurious living. The early Momoyama Period works have the potter’s humble and modest attitude, and that really impressed me. I’ve been trying to make chawan like those, and that has been my path for six years.

It’s quite a story, this former prime minister now turned humble potter. The wisdom contained within the tea world not only relates to the actual ceremony itself, it also teaches us how to live with beauty and grace. Hosokawa can share these teachings with the world through his chatou [he had an exhibition in Galerie Yoshii, Paris, and plans more overseas shows someday]; his ceramic art is not only a positive image for Japan, it has the power to bring a small portion of humanity closer together, one sip at a time.