Japanese brothers who championed Korean ceramics

by Sachiko Tamashige

Special To The Japan Times

In ancient times, Japanese arts and crafts were greatly influenced by the introduction of techniques and aesthetics from Korea and China. In particular, Japan owes the development of its ceramics to the skilled craftsmen brought over from Korea at the end of 16th century, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded the Korean Peninsula and a large number of potters were forcibly taken back to Japan. Subsequently, in areas such as Arita in present-day Saga Prefecture, they laid the foundations of a ceramics industry that would became world famous.

Then, in 1910, Japan annexed Korea, and the period of occupation and cultural oppression that followed still haunts the relationship between the two countries. However, it is refreshing to remember that during the time of the occupation there were two Japanese brothers who stood by Koreans and dedicated their lives to preserving the heritage, traditional culture and pride of the local people through the field of ceramics and crafts.

The brothers’ names were Noritaka (1884-1964) and Takumi Asakawa (1891-1931). And though they were all but forgotten after World War II, the brothers were a great inspiration to Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), guiding him toward a better understanding of Joseon arts and crafts — and eventually leading him to establish the mingei movement along with notable artists such as Kenkichi Tomimoto, Kanjiro Kawai and Shoji Hamada.

There has been a growing tendency in recent years, to reevaluate the brothers’ achievements, and in response to this trend, Chiba City Art Museum is now holding a special exhibition titled “Asakawa Noritaka & Takumi Brothers: Their Souls and Their Visions” — the first comprehensive attempt to introduce their lives and works and recognize their achievements. The show will include approximately 200 works, including the collection of the former National Folk Museum of Korea, works for which were selected by the brothers and Yanagi, sketches, drawings and pottery by Noritaka.

Born in Yamanashi Prefecture, the brothers moved to the Korean Peninsula during the early years of the colonial period (1910-1945) and chose to live in a Joseon-style house and blend themselves into the local community. In 1913, Noritaka was posted as a Japanese elementary school teacher to Keijo (present-day Seoul). One year later his younger brother, Takumi, joined him there — as a forest engineer sent to restore the woodlands damaged by war. Takumi lived as a Korean and even wore traditional Korean baji jeogori — his last words were “bury my bones in the land of Joseon,” and when he died at the young age of 40 he was buried as a Korean. Loved by many local Koreans, who lined up to carry his coffin, Takumi became a legendary figure and his life was immortalized in the novel “The Man of White Porcelain” (by Emiya Takayuki), which is being made into a film due for release next year.

Although the exhibition was organized to commemorate the 120th Anniversary of Takumi Asakawa’s birth, the significance of Noritaka, the elder brother should not be underestimated and this exhibition allows space to shed light on Noritaka’s life and work. It was Noritaka who discovered the excellence of Joseon ceramics and inspired Takumi and Yanagi to collect and study them. In the summer of 1914, Yanagi was taken by a small blue-and-white jar of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) brought by Noritaka, who was visiting Yanagi’s place to see a sculpture by Auguste Rodin.

At the time, Yanagi was introducing leading artists from the West such as Rodin, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh to Japanese readers, but he immediately recognized the supreme value in the simple piece by a nameless Korean craftman shown to him by Noritaka: “My encounter with Yi (Joseon) Dynasty everyday utensils was a critical one in that it determined the course of my whole life,” said Yanagi.

Collecting examples of folk crafts from the Joseon Dynasty led Yanagi to realize that the most beautiful objects were the products not of individual artists but of the collective genius of Korean artisans as a whole — something that resonated with the profound humanity and aesthetics of the Asakawa brothers.

Prior to this, Noritaka had found a white porcelain jar from the Joseon Dynasty at a tool shop in Keijo (right) and recognized that its radiating beauty and artistic quality echoed fine sculpture. This encounter drove him into a lifetime search for Joseon ceramics. His survey covered 700 sites of old kilns throughout the entire Korean Peninsula, and he compiled materials including countless shards excavated from old kilns, classifying them with detailed notes. Noritaka wrote crucial essays on Joseon ceramics for magazines such as Shirakaba, the leading literary magazine of the time, and attracted the attention of contemporary intellectuals.

Following in the footsteps of his brother, Takumi published “Survey of Korean Ceramics,” which is still in print today and is an invaluable, textbook-like reference work detailing the types, names, materials, methods and tools used in Korean ceramics, including a thorough survey of kiln marks.

While celadon pottery from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) was already highly regarded, the ceramics and craftworks of the Joseon Dynasty had mostly been ignored by specialists. But suddenly, from the 1920s onward Josean ceramics started to draw attention, opening the eyes of potters, scholars and connoisseurs of ceramics. This was triggered by the discovery of “a new type of beauty” in these works, and it was the Asakawa brothers who were responsible for that discovery.

As the Japanese occupation carried on the Japanization of Korea, the Asakawa brothers and Yanagi criticized the authorities and emphasized the importance of preserving the indigenous culture of Korea. The National Folk Museum of Korea, in Seoul — founded by Yanagi along with Takumi in 1924 — was the culmination of their efforts and showcased the invaluable cultural heritage of Korea with superb examples of Joseon ceramics selected by them as well as all their research materials. The Asakawa brothers also tried to revive regional kilns so that Koreans could survive financially.

This exhibition is not just about the fine examples of Korean porcelain or the story of connoisseurs. It is about two brothers who wholeheartedly devoted their lives to preserving the cultural heritage and soul of the Korean people. They showed that true beauty lies in ordinary objects deeply rooted in the life and soul of the people. They encourage us to believe that the power of art can transcend any conflict between nations.

The special exhibition in commemoration of the 120th anniversary of Takumi Asakawa’s birth, “Asakawa Noritaka & Takumi Brothers: Their Souls and Their Visions,” runs Aug. 9 — Oct. 2 at Chiba City Art Museum.