NISHIGO, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Takeshi Matsunaga is an aspiring entrepreneur who until four years ago did not give much thought to tradition.
He studied at a prestigious university, hoping to land a consulting or advertising job. He took a one-year leave from his studies to do business in China, and then Cambodia, immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
Once he left the country, however, he came to feel he wanted to do something for Fukushima Prefecture, where he had grown up and left after high school in search of opportunities and challenges.
At age 26, Matsunaga now runs his own company in Tokyo and does not hide his appetite for venturing abroad. But he is also focused on reviving and selling traditional pottery unique to his hometown of Namie, about 10 km away from the meltdown-riddled Fukushima No. 1 plant.
“Frankly, I didn’t like Obori Soma ware. I didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of my (third-generation craftsman) father, either,” said Matsunaga.
“But we almost lost our tradition after the disasters. That is when I realized Obori Soma ware had formed my identity,” he said in his family’s new pottery facility in Nishigo, Fukushima, located about 80 km from Namie’s Obori district, still unlivable due to contamination from the destroyed reactors of Fukushima No. 1.
Dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1868), Obori Soma ware was designated as a traditional craft by the government in 1978. Namie had a total of 25 pottery operations producing goods mainly for daily use and gifts before the nuclear crisis exploded in March 2011. After World War II there was a period in which the town’s ceramics were shipped to the United States in large quantities.
But radioactive fallout from Fukushima No. 1 made it impossible to use local stones called Toyamaishi, an essential material for the local potters to produce a glaze that realizes unique blue cracks on the surface.
This feature is distinctive to Obori Soma pottery, along with a double-layered structure and the painting of a horse running to the left, considered a good omen.
Working with the Fukushima Technology Center, a local union of potters from Namie is trying to restore Obori Soma ware. They successfully produced an alternative glaze by blending different materials, keeping the three-century-old tradition barely alive.
So far, around 10 of the 25 potters have resumed operations at different locations in the prefecture. But four years on from 3/11, some have begun to fret about the fading of public interest.
“You can get attention relatively easily when you start anew, but it’s more difficult to keep it,” said Hidetoki Hangai, who heads local potters’ cooperative union Obori Somayaki Kyodo Kumiai.
Matsunaga thought Obori Soma ware needed a new twist to cater to a wider pool of customers, especially from younger generations. He asked young designers for new designs for the signature horse, with one of the 10 cups under the Kachi-uma product series bearing English wording on the surface.
Still, he admits it’s not been easy, as craftsmen in their 50s and 60s who have been making their living from pottery for decades are not enthusiastic about entering new territory.
“Sometimes tradition is seen as so sacred that you can’t change it to make profits,” Matsunaga said. “On second thought, however, how are you going to survive when you don’t have enough successors? Entering new fields is not like destroying our tradition, but building on it.”
Matsunaga’s company, Gatch Inc., receives orders from customers in Japan and abroad, and at present procures ceramics from three potters in Fukushima.
On a national level, the central government has allocated ¥700 million ($5.8 million) since fiscal 2012 to subsidize manufacturers of state-designated traditional crafts in Tohoku’s disaster areas.
The aim is not only to assist local craftsmen with restoring and rebuilding manufacturing bases but also to explore ways, including exporting products abroad, to help traditional crafts live on.
In the three worst-affected prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the state aims to restore the combined production of traditional crafts to pre-disaster levels by the end of the current fiscal year to March 2016, a government official said.
Matsunaga has already traveled to the United States and plans to go to France for an exhibition this year to make a pitch for 21st century Obori Soma ware. Future plans include opening shops overseas to sell the ceramics.
As word of his family pottery in the village of Nishigo spread, residents, who initially mistook it for some kind of radioactive decontamination facility when it opened last April, have started to drop by.
“Old customers and neighbors who were forced to evacuate to various places also stop in and buy our products to remember Namie. It just makes me happy,” Matsunaga’s 63-year-old mother, Kyoko, said.
“I don’t know about the future but now that the pottery has reopened, my son tells me to do this and that over and over again,” she said with a smile inside a shop next to the pottery operation. “I don’t have time to loosen up.”
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