A life fired by devotion to ceramics

by Robert Yellin

Many a foreign Japanese pottery scholar or collector owes a great debt to the life and work of Fujio Koyama (1900-1975). He wrote countless books and articles and some were fortunately translated into English; they are still a great source of knowledge and pleasure. These include the wonderful “The Heritage of Japanese Ceramics” (1973) (originally published in Japanese as “Nihon Toji no Dento” [1967]) and “Two Thousand Years of Oriental Ceramics” (1961). The first book, in particular, is required reading for anyone wanting to know the history of this potter’s paradise.

Koyama also wore another hat, that of a distinguished potter in his own right. Not limiting himself to any one style, he made Karatsu, hakuji (white porcelain), Bizen, Hagi, Shigaraki and the style for which he became most known, Tanegashima Nanban. To look at the world of Fujio Koyama is to see the whole of Japanese ceramic history and the works of many great potters of the 20th century.

That’s just what the Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo hopes you will do as it hosts a retrospective exhibition to commemorate the centennial of Koyama’s birth. “Tsuchi ni Asobu, To ni Manabu (Play With Clay, Learn From Pots)” runs until Jan. 28.

Of course the focus of the exhibition is on Koyama’s pottery and the pots he loved. Walking into the large hall one is greeted by glass cases positioned here and there in the interior; all these contain Koyama’s work. The two long glass cases on both sides of the hall contain ancient works that nurtured Koyama as well as some works in the left case that were made by his close contemporaries. In the far back a case of his sketches and writings, some in English, offer more insight into this man whose whole life was passionately devoted to Japanese and East Asian pottery.

He began to study the making of ceramics with Toto Yano in Seto in 1925 and then with Zoroku Mashimizu II in Kyoto the following year. In those days interest in Chinese ceramics was high, and Koyama happened to be neighbors with Munemaru Ishiguro (1893-1968), a potter renowned for his mastery of Chinese glazes. They studied and worked together, even holding a joint exhibition together in 1930. A small set of five white sencha cups are on display from that period.

Yet Koyama wasn’t as skilled at throwing or glazing as Ishiguro, and some feel he resented being compared unfavorably. At any rate, he decided to switch his pottery endeavors from throwing to digging. And dig he did. He moved back to his childhood Tokyo home, entered the Oriental Ceramics Institute and undertook the tasks of researching kilns in Japan, China and Korea. His discovery of a Song Dynasty kiln that made hakuji at Ding Yao is well documented.

Koyama’s work earned him the respect of his peers and he was appointed to the Commission for Protection of Cultural Properties, which designated Japanese pottery that should be put in the National Treasure or Important Cultural Property class. Koyama was instrumental in setting up the system of ningen kokuho (living national treasures), which in those days meant so much more than it does today. I think Koyama would be aghast if he saw the lack of meaning and the politics involved in the selection process today.

In Koyama’s time it had true and deep meaning. Pieces with historical value were set aside for recognition, as were the works of some of Japan’s finest: Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), Toyo Kaneshige (1896-1967) and Toyozo Arakawa (1894-1985), to name but a few.

Yet even in those days there were scandals, and Koyama was hit by one and had to relinquish his distinguished post. Here’s what happened.

The leading Seto potter Tokuro Kato (1898-1985), wishing to prove his supremacy in the potting world and flout the art establishment, made some heishi (large pouring vessels) in the Seto style of the Einin Era (1293-1299). He broke four and buried the shards next to one he’d left intact. After some time had passed he had the pieces “discovered” during an excavation. Koyama, believing them authentic, decided to register the perfect one.

Well, Kato proudly ‘fessed up and all hell broke loose. Koyama was left to carry the burden of shame for it all. He resigned from his post and left Japan for many months, traveling to other Asian countries to view their ceramic heritages.

On his return he settled back into his Kamakura home and began potting again. He built his Eifuku kiln, where a large portion of the wares in the exhibition were fired; he had another kiln in Gifu also.

Many of Koyama’s pots come off as bulky looking; some may even describe them as sloppy. Others, especially his Tanegashima Nanban pots, appear to be so solid and heavy that one would make a good bowling ball if it had the correct shape.

But his passion for his art shines through all the faults in his throwing and his heart is worn like a badge on each pot.

Being the sake lover that I am, I especially enjoyed the glass case with all the wonderful little cups and flasks gathered around like colorful partygoers telling stories.

This article only touches briefly on the life and works of this central figure of 20th-century Japanese ceramics. It’s quite fitting, however, that the exhibition straddles the turning of a century — one that saw so many positive developments that will surely last well into the next, partly due to the groundwork done decades ago by Fujio Koyama.

An exhibition of note in Kyoto is “The International Expositions and the Dawn of Modern Japanese Ceramics,” at the National Museum of Modern Art until Jan. 28.