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MINEO OKABE

The rewards of hardship

by Robert Yellin

One of Japan’s most influential 20th-century ceramic artists, Mineo Okabe, was relatively unknown — and certainly under-appreciated — during his lifetime. Today, though, potters take great inspiration from, and collectors go gaga over, the bold new forms and styles he created.

It’s often said that a troubled life for an artist results in great triumphs. Okabe (1919-1990) not only endured hardships and poverty, he was at the center of one of Japan’s most notorious art scandals, so it is not surprising that he produced some of the country’s most important 20th-century ceramics. A major retrospective — more than 20 years in the making — is showing more than 170 pieces at the National Museum of Modern Art, Crafts Gallery, Tokyo, till May 20, before traveling to five other locales.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, with the first introducing Okabe’s use of traditional glazes, including white Shino, green Oribe and Yellow Seto, on engraved vessels with motifs from the Jomon Era. The second looks at tenmoku tea bowls that he based on old Chinese wares, and the final section displays his astonishing celadon wares.

Okabe was the first son of Kato Tokuro (1898-1985), a major Seto potter, but the relationship basically ended there — his grandfather, his wife and the potter-scholar Koyama Fujio (1900-1975) were the main figures in his life. He changed his name to Okabe to honor his wife for the support she gave him during his troubled and impoverished life.

Okabe’s grandfather, a trailblazer in the pottery tool business, taught him about glazes, kilns, clay and pottery tools. These pottery tool-making skills helped him in the 1950s to produce, in rich green Oribe glazing, the Jomon pattern pots that are his early masterpieces.

In 1928, when the family were dirt poor, Tokuro moved them to Ichirizuka in Seto, leaving behind Okabe’s beloved grandparents. There, Okabe began to learn pottery-making on a wheel. Almost 10 years later, he graduated from Aichi Prefecture Seto Ceramics School and returned to his parents, where he worked for a year, often under slavery-like conditions.

In order to escape, Okabe moved to Tokyo to enter the Tokyo Physics School and to study oil painting. But his life in Tokyo did not last long because he had no funds to support himself and his parents often asked him to come back and assist with the family kiln. Once, hoping to earn some money, he returned to fire some vessels, but when he arrived, he discovered that there weren’t even any done. He would have to start from scratch and make everything.

Realizing he was being taken advantage of, in 1940 he joined the army and fought in the Philippines in World War II before being taken prisoner. When he returned to Japan in 1947, broke, he settled in Hiradobashi (modern-day Toyoda City), in Aichi Prefecture, and began making pottery. Though most people couldn’t afford high-quality ceramics, Okabe said that, “At one time in the past, I decided not to be a potter. Yet, while I was detained in a prison camp in Manila, and after much soul-searching, I decided to devote my life to pottery.”

He worked on his repertoire of styles, adding Setoguro (Black Seto), Beni-Shino (red Shino), Mishima (slip engraved wares), Kohiki (white slip), Karatsu and Bizen. Beni-Shino had been his original style, but it became quite popular and fakes appeared on the market, so he ceased production.

In 1953, Okabe met the influential potter-scholar Koyama, who helped him sell work to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The same year, Okabe’s “Ao-Oribe Jomon Tsubo” received the Hokuto Award at the prestigious Nitten exhibition and was bought by the Ministry for their Paris embassy.

It took Okabe half a year to develop the revolutionary Jomon technique that he used most effectively on bold Oribe jars. He fired them in a way that no other potter had done before to create his acclaimed brilliant greens. Yet his money troubles continued, and he had to sell cheap food utensils to support his family and works.

But controversy was soon to follow. In a scandal that came to be known as the “Einin Incident,” copies of Kamakura Period Seto sake bottles that Okabe had made were mistakenly designated as Important Cultural Properties by officials who thought they were the real thing. When his father claimed to have made them, Okabe finally turned his back on his family forever. A trio of Okabe’s bottles are on display and although only decades old they could pass for having survived centuries.

The artist devoted the rest of his life to celadon tea ware. The results stunned the Japanese pottery world. As one magazine put it, “they are sophisticated, mysterious masterpieces.” He started by imitating Chinese styles and then brought a layer-upon-layer craquelure glazing that is as fine as any gem.

In addition, he also left his touch on celadon tea ware with deep imprints of his fingers where he held them during glazing, a daring move that took celadon from its world of god-like perfection to a secular, human one.