Artistic daring from a retired prime minister

by C.B. Liddell

This story may sound like the ultimate anecdote about “slumming it,” a phenomenon in which the rich and privileged willingly choose to endure conditions much harsher and more squalid than they are used to. About 10 years ago, following his retirement from politics, ex-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa decided to take up ceramics, choosing to study under a particularly unorthodox teacher, the potter Shiro Tsujimura.

“He is a very unique and wild person, and very strict with his apprentices,” Hosokawa said during an interview at the Maison Hermes gallery in Ginza, where some of the results of his artistic endeavors are on display. “When I first contacted him, his response was quite blunt. Anyway, he picked me up and drove me to his workshop up in the mountains, about 40 or 50 minutes from Nara. His workshop was extremely dirty, littered with the debris of broken ceramics, but I stayed there and worked under his leadership for about a year and a half.”

But the rough-and-tumble nature of the location was only half the surprise, as Tsujimura’s teaching methods owed more to the psychological shock tactics associated with arrogant Zen masters than to the simple advice of the helpful craftsman.

“This apprenticeship was the traditional Japanese one, but the most extreme version” the 72-year-old Hosakawa recalled. “I worked from 5:30 in the morning till 7 in the evening, and he never taught me. Instead I made my ceramics for myself and he just looked at me and said things like, ‘You old fool,’ or, ‘No! Throw it away.’ I had to learn his technique or theory from my observation. This is a very unusual environment for modern Japanese. I think an ordinary person would have run away.”

The idea of an ex-prime minister and descendent of a long line of nobles being treated in such a way has a certain populist appeal, but the story also includes the notion that good art comes from a certain amount of dedication and suffering. The story therefore serves the purpose of reminding us that Hosokawa is not just some rich, old dilettante playing at a hobby in his twilight years; he is a serious artist in his own right.

Also, he is keen to point out that, just like his ceramics teacher, he too was something of a “wild spirit” in his younger days, both as a student and later as a reporter at the Asahi Shimbun.

“My school nickname was ‘Yabanjin,’ which means barbarian,” he said. “Then, in my reporting days, I sometimes led a very wild life, sleeping at the office, meeting radical student activists and reporting on murder cases and slum towns like Sanya and Kamagasaki.”

The implication of this is that the artistic life he has chosen, centered on his secluded home and kiln at Yugawara in Kanagawa Prefecture, is the culmination and fulfillment of a restless spirit, one that was perhaps unable to find full expression in the complexities and compromises of politics. The name of the exhibition “Shisei no Sankyo” (“Hermitage in the City”) plays to this theme. With examples of his art and a teahouse installation designed by Terunobu Fujimori, the architect who also built a full-scale tea house at Yugawara, the exhibition attempts to replicate the atmosphere of Hosokawa’s artistic retreat.

But what would a visitor with no political or dynastic knowledge of Japan make of it? The first thing he or she might notice is the great variety on display. In addition to many different kinds of pottery, there are also other kinds of art, including calligraphy and paintings. This hints at restlessness, but also evokes the kind of wide-ranging intelligence typical of the top class executive mind. This characteristic seems to unite both the artist and the politician.

“Normally a ceramist concentrates on one particular school, for example Shigaraki, Karatsu, etc.,” Hosokawa explained. “But my work is very varied, from one type to another, with 15 to 20 styles of ceramics, and I also make ceramic Buddhist statues and five-storied Buddhist gravestones, so I am quite unique compared with other ceramists. I started branching into other areas of art because in Japan when a ceramist presents his works in a box he should write a description on the box, for example what type it is and also the name of the work. This led me to calligraphy. Also ceramics sometimes have cracks on the surface that can be repaired with lacquer, making them curious items. I became interested in lacquer not just as a repair material but also as a painting tool.”

While many of the pieces still have the atmosphere of the apprentice observing the rules and conventions that dictate so much in Japanese art, other pieces show the aspect of willfulness and rule- breaking that is characteristic of the true artist. This is most evident in his paintings, where he applies bright oil paints to motifs — such as the legendary monk Daruma — that are traditionally painted using ink or lacquer. In such works, he is now following his own path in a way that was perhaps impossible in his earlier career.

“Shisei no Sankyo” at Maison Hermes Le Forum runs till July 19; free admission; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (till 7 p.m. Sun.)