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japan times ceramic scene article

updated tue 30 sep 97


Robert Yellin on sun 14 sep 97

To those of you who are interested-
This is an article that appeared in the Japan Times on
Hope you enjoy and any comments would be appreciated.
Robert Yellin

To celebrate the centennial of the birth of the grand Seto potter,
Tokuro Kato(1898-1985), the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum in Kanazawa
(076-231-7580)is hosting an exhibition showing 160 of Tokuro's Showa
masterpieces. The last time a large exhibition of Kato's works travelled
Japan was in 1984 when his work was shown side by side Momoyama
period(1568-1603) Mino wares.
Tokuro was born in Seto city in Aichi prefecture, an ancient potting
center that is a member of the 'six old kilns' of Japan. At the age of
eight he began collecting potsherds from old kilnsites and took over his
family kiln in 1914 when he was only sixteen. His imagination sparked by
those fragmented Mino clay chips he had collected, he set out on a
course to reproduce those classical Mino styles, which include Shino,
Setoguro(Black Seto), Ki-Seto(Yellow Seto), and Oribe wares.
After years of studying the Momoyama Mino shards for clues on glazes and
firing, he made the chawan (teabowl) 'Tsurara'(Icicle) in Showa 5
(1930) which received much attention from the then very stiff and closed
society of pre-World War ll Japan. In 1933 he published a book on
Ki-Seto questioning the long held belief that Ki-Seto was fired in Seto.
Tokuro put forth that Ki-Seto was actually fired in and around
Tajimi-city, Gifu prefecture(since proven correct)and this 'slander'
against the ancestors of Seto insulted the ceramic fascists and led to
the infamous Ki-Seto book burning incident the same year.
Another anecdote about Tokuro is probably the greatest potting scandal
of twentieth century Japan known as the Einin no Tsubo Scandal. Tokuro
prided himself on ability to reproduce classical pieces so well that not
even the experts could tell them apart. To prove his point, in 1937 he
made several replicas of Einin period(1293-1299) Heishi, an old Seto
sake bottle. It's not clear exactly when, but he broke a few of the pots
and buried the shards along with an intact heishi in a medieval kiln
site and had them 'discovered' during an excavation of the kiln in 1960.
The well-known ceramic authority Fujio Koyama(1900-1975),a friend of
Kato's who was on the committee that decided matters of cultural
importance, proposed that the recently found heishi be designated as an
Important Cultural Property. Kato then revealed his prank to a fuming
Koyama who would not believe Kato based on the evidence of the shards.
Kato broke that news to a fuming Koyama as well. He had duped the
experts, but nonetheless it caused great embarrassment to all involved
and both Koyama and Kato resigned from their respective official
positions. 'When you set your work in the public eye, you get scathing
criticism. That is when you become a mature person,' Kato wrote about
these incidents.
Withdrawing from public life, he changed his ceramic signature to
'Ichimusai' ('One emptiness(nothingness), sai means purity) and again
devoted himself to the making of tea utensils and toheki (ceramic
His chawan, mostly Shino, Ki-Seto, and Setoguro, are gracefully powerful
and at the same time reflect Kato's deep Zen beliefs.
Daisetsu Suzuki, the great Zen scholar refers to the term jiriki which
is salvation through one's own labor, Kato did just that. Wearing his
jeans overalls and straw hat, he would walk in the mountains looking for
old kilns and good clay, thus he was given the nickname of 'No no tojin'
or country bumpkin potter. He referred to himself as a 'being like a
worm' in that he always tasted the clay he found, "good clay tastes
good", he was known to have said. For his Shino chawan the clay was
paramount, followed by the firing. He said of chawan, "They are not only
to gaze upon, but must be held and used to appreciate the inherent
beauty and art; this cannot be done either paintings or sculpture. To
make a good chawan, first one has to understand the value of old
masterpieces. I have come to that understanding but still can't seem to
make even one worthy chawan!"
He certainly had a sense of humor- his Shino chawan are arguably the
finest ever made since the Momoyama period. Take for instance his chawan
named Ryujo that shows the pure white warmth of the thick feldspar Shino
glaze. Underglaze iron brush marks can be seen through the translucent
glaze. The voluminous rounded form has a thick flared drinking lip. Kato
used to refer to his chawan as being like castles and
that they are- monumental, yet unlike a castle, they can be held in the
hands. Collectors and critics agree that his best chawan were made
during his early seventies.
In addition to the already mentioned Ki-Seto book, he authored a major
dictionary of ceramics which was issued in volumes beginning in 1934 and
was collected in one volume and published in 1972 under the title
'Genshoku Toki Dai Jiten' and to this day stands alone as a reference
for any oriental ceramics student or collector.
Ironically, he was designated a Living National Treasure in 1952 for his
Oribe wares instead of his Shino ware, of course Kato's Oribe, mostly
serving bowls and platters, are outstanding.
After Kanazawa, this exhibition travels to Nagoya from October 2nd-14th
at Maruei(052-264-5388) and in Tokyo from the 30th of October until the
11th of November at Nihonbashi Takashimaya(03-3246-4310). Admission is
900yen for adults, 600yen for college and high school students and
400yen for jr. high and elementary school students.
An exhibition not to be missed.
In addition to Kato's show a few other ceramic giants are featured this
month. First, Bernard Leach(1879-1979) will be the focus of a large
exhibition comprising 177 works of art from British and Japanese
collections at Togei no Mori in Shigaraki from September 20-October 26.
Admission is 800 yen for adults, 550 yen for college and high school
students, and 350 yen for jr. high and elementary students. For more
information call 0748-83-0909.
Kanjiro Kawai(1890-1966) and his apprentices are showing in Nagoya at
Matsuzakaya's sixth floor gallery from the 18th-24th. Call 052-251-1111
for more information.
Finally, the epicurean ceramist, Rosanjin Kitaoji(1883-1959) is at
Odakyu's 7th floor gallery in the Haruku annex from the
10th-15(03-3342-1111). About fifty pieces will be shown while the show
scheduled for the 25th at Nihonbashi Takashimaya will feature almost one
hundred and fifty pieces and is being billed as a meihin(masterpieces)
exhbition. Admission will be charged and it runs through October 7th.

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