UTSUNOMIYA – Pottery artists from Tochigi Prefecture offered decade-long support to Cambodia to help recover the ceramic art techniques that vanished after the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century.
In 2005, the Tochigi Prefectural Government launched a project to send artists from Mashiko, its town famous for earthenware called Mashiko-yaki, to a village in the central Cambodian province of Kampong Chhnang.
The village, about 90 km northwest of Phnom Penh, had been a major production center for ceramics, but its biscuit-fired products with no glaze coat were easily broken.
Cambodians had Khmer ceramics, believed to be of high quality, during the Khmer Empire from the ninth to 15th centuries. But the techniques of the art were lost after the empire’s fall.
During the violent Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot in the 1970s, knowledge and related documents of the art were mostly destroyed, according to the Nippon Foundation, which took over the Cambodian project from the Tochigi government in 2009.
Under the Japanese project that continued to December 2015, about 15 Japanese pottery artists taught local craftsmen in the village of Kampong Chhnang the technique to use a potter’s wheel and fire ceramics, recommending that the surface be glazed.
Japanese artists, together with the local potters, traveled across the province to collect various types of clay and stones, and studied the components to find optimal materials.
Shinsuke Iwami, 52, who led the Japanese team, said, “Ceramic glaze can certainly be imported but we wanted to use local materials because that way the technique should take root in the village.” He has continued with his support to Cambodia after the official end of the project.
The Japanese techniques may not revive exactly the same arts used in ancient Khmer ceramics.
But Yukie Yamazaki, a 44-year-old Japanese who lives in Phnom Penh and helped with the project, said it helped create contemporary Khmer potteries.
“During the Pol Pot regime, potters were unable to take pride in their country, but apparently their confidence was redeemed with sales of their ceramics growing,” she said.
Yamazaki, who served as an interpreter between Japanese artists and local potters, has sold the products made by Cambodian craftsmen at a local shop since 2009.
She said in 2013 she started taking orders for tableware from local restaurants, and demand currently surpasses their overall production capacity.
Their ceramics have also become available in Japan. A fashion and interior goods shop in Tokyo’s Shibuya district started selling them in May.
A 53-year-old Cambodian potter, Ourn Peou, said in a message through Yamazaki, “We expect that if we keep on, we would be able to someday produce ceramic ware like the Khmer people left us.”
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