|

The Koreans who potted in Kyushu

by Robert Yellin

Japan has long been fascinated with outside influences, and voraciously absorbs them in order to create something totally unique. This can be found in almost all aspects of Japanese industry and culture — and it is nowhere more apparent than in the pottery born in Kyushu. Of course, ancient kilns dating back to the dawn of Japanese civilization are to be found on Kyushu, yet it wasn’t until the late 1590s with the influx of Korean potters — in the “Pottery Wars” — that the island’s pottery really matured.

Those Korean potters — many of whom became Japanese citizens — brought with them new kiln designs, the ability to create porcelain, and ash glazes that have delighted ceramic enthusiasts ever since. The glory of Kyushu’s ceramic art from the Edo Period (1603-1867) to the early Showa Era is now on display in Tokyo at the Nihon Mingeikan (Japan Folk Crafts Museum) until June 26 in an exhibition titled “Ceramics in Kyushu.”

Those who have not yet been to the Mingeikan, are missing one of Japan’s most charming museums. Its intimate and timeless atmosphere is the perfect place to discover the beauty of folk arts, and it’s a pilgrimage any lover of Japanese art should make no matter what exhibition they have on offer. Anyone with an interest in traditional ceramic art will be captivated by this exhibition that introduces visitors to the many styles of pottery fired in Kyushu, including Imari and Karatsu from Saga, Hasami from Nagasaki, Koishiwara from Fukuoka, Onta from Oita, Shodai from Kumamoto, and Naeshirogawa and Tanegashima from Kagoshima.

There are two basic kinds of ceramics in antique Kyushu — pottery fired by part-time farmers/part-time potters creating vessels for daily life, and Tea pottery fired originally for daimyo, with the style that best represents the latter category being Karatsu-yaki.

Karatsu is a port city in Saga Prefecture which is very close to Korea. In eastern Japan, the generic term to describe pottery is setomono, the Kyushu equivalent is karatsumono, showing just how important this potting center was, and, of course, still is.

The noborigama (chambered climbing kiln) was introduced from Korea to Japan — via Karatsu — in the 17th century and forever changed the ceramic landscape. It allowed various glazed wares such as madara-garatsu (speckled straw-ash glaze), chosen-garatsu (Korean-style, two-tone glazing), e-garatsu (painted) or kuro-garatsu (black) to be created on these shores.

Karatsu became important in the tea world with many tea-ceremony devotees considering it one of the top four styles along with Raku, Ido and Hagi. An unassuming e-garatsu jar in the exhibition aptly illustrates the philosophy of the “unknown craftsman,” made famous by mingei founder Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) — its fully rounded tranquil form and spontaneous iron-brush rendition of reeds are the epitome of Japanese folk pottery. Originally it was used as a salt-cellar, yet is now more commonly used as a mizusashi (fresh water jar) in a Way of Tea gathering.

One of the outstanding pieces in the exhibition is a large 18th-century Shodai-yaki tea jar. Shodai-yaki takes its name from Mount Shodai (Arao City, Kumamoto Prefecture) where the clay has a high iron-content and is perfect for sturdy pottery.

Over the iron-rich clay, a dark-brown iron glaze is applied, and then a rice-straw ash-glaze is either ladled or dramatically dripped on, here creating an unintentional abstract rendering of birdlike figures.

Representative of Kyushu forms is a large spouted vessel called an unsuke of which there are a few outstanding examples on show. One was made at Koishiwara and has a wild white-and-yellow splash glazing over the base iron glaze; it was originally used to hold soy sauce, vinegar, or sake. Another unsuke has a magical overlapping of a green glaze with tinges of blue over the iron glaze. It’s almost impossible to find potters able to create this effect today due to changes in materials and methods of firing.

Unsuke were commonly used in Kyushu households until the early Showa Era, mini-versions of them called a karakara are still used for pouring shochu throughout Kyushu.

World-famous Imari porcelains are more than adequately represented here. There are several large subdued underglaze blue landscape bowls — one of which is a masterpiece in terms of design, color and the balance of the two — and also the more colorful underglaze blue with overglaze enamel paintings.

Korean potter Ri Sampei (1579-1655) located a cache of suitable porcelain clay in the early 1600s in Northern Kyushu and Japan, and, finally, was able to produce porcelain. The neighboring port town of Imari was where many 17th-century Dutch merchants loaded up their ships with Arita-made porcelain, so the term Imari and Arita wares are often interchangeable.

No one piece in the exhibition is as haunting as a 17th-century Tataro-yaki burial urn from Saga. It’s crudely formed with a somber dark brown body and has a maze-like coil motif; giving the whole a gothic feel.

By quietly observing the outer strength and inner calm of all the pieces on display, a serene majestic mood will guide you back home to where (hopefully) your daily utensils offer you not only usefulness, yet also take you to some place where beauty and life can intertwine.

The Mingeikan (03) 3467-4527 is a 7-minute walk from Komaba Todaimae station on the Inokashira local line. Walk out of the station, under the tracks, and turn left. Follow the road until it curves to the right. The Mingeikan is on your right. Admission 1,000 yen, college/high school students 500 yen, and middle/elementary school students 200 yen. Open daily (except Mondays) 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Mamiko Hayashi is showing her delightfully cool tableware and stylish colored boxes at Ecru + HM, located in the funky old Okuno Building. It was built in 1932 and has housed many famous artists and writers. Since the decrepit elevator only goes to the sixth and seventh floors (Ecru + HM is on the fourth), it’s better idea to take the stairs — you’ll be surprised at how short they are. Then you can also pop into one of the many other galleries. Ecru + HM is a cozy one-room space that is run by Akiko Yokomori.

New Works by Mamiko Hayashi until April 24 at Ecru + HM, Okuno Bldg. 4F, 1-9-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, (03) 3561-8121 Robert Yellin’s Web site can be visited at www.e-yakimono.net