Of all the well-known Japanese ceramic artists of the past four hundred years, men like Raku ware’s Chojiro, the Kyoto designers and decorators Ninsei Nonomura and Kenzan Ogata, and the innovative and technically brilliant Kozan Makuzu, by far the most famous and influential has been the twentieth century folk craft (mingei) movement potter Shoji Hamada (1894-1978). It is ironic that Shoji sought to capture the spirit of “nameless potters” (mumei toko) who had worked before him, and ended up becoming famed around the developed world. It is even more surprising that he began his craft not in a traditional workshop as an apprentice to an established potter, but in one of Japan’s newly-founded technical schools, Tokyo Industrial College.
It is important to realize that Shoji Hamada did not set out to become a folk craft style potter from the outset of his career. His first teacher was the famed porcelain artist Hazan Itaya (1872-1963), whose delicately executed designs in soft colors and relief and whose habit of wearing a white lab coat when he worked were the antithesis of the mingei ideal. Both Shoji and his good friend Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966) worked as ceramics technicians at the Kyoto Ceramic Testing Institute-their first paying jobs in ceramics. Thus, it is a mistake to refer to Shoji as either a folk artist or a traditional potter, because the styles he worked in were consciously selected and developed from all the many ceramic modes he encountered.
Today, when we read about Shoji in his later years and see photos of him bent over the wheel in his traditional garments, we tend to assume that those outward trappings are essential for any Japanese traditional craftsman/artist. Shoji typically dressed in western suits on formal occasions, however; so he no doubt wore native working garb mainly because he found it comfortable, not because he thought it necessary for a “traditional” potter. That said, it is obvious that Shoji approached his life and work in a holistic manner, and that his workshop, house, clothes and lifestyle were all related to his greater motivation for working in clay. One is struck most strongly by both his aesthetic focus and the reverence with which he treated his profession. These, and a keen sense of design, are what set Shoji Hamada apart from other ceramists.
Shoji Hamada’s son, Shinsaku, naturally has had a life both easier and more difficult than his father. One might suppose that growing up watching his father, then working alongside him well into adulthood, it would take Shinsaku little effort to produce whatever he wanted. In fact, he really only had to continue his father’s basic style, using the same materials and the same tools, and he was assured of a comfortable life with a steady income. At the same time, it must be admitted that Shinsaku’s circumstances at the time of his father’s passing could not have been very easy. Although he had all the skills to continue making his father’s style of pots right there in his father’s own workshop, if he chose, Shinsaku was also faced with a situation in which the number of potters coming to Mashiko to cash in on the Hamada mingei legacy was increasing steadily.
Yet Shinsaku had resources beyond what might be expected. As a young man, he attended Waseda University in Tokyo, one of Japan’s foremost private universities. There he studied industrial arts, since he had already decided to be a potter. After graduation, Shinsaku apprenticed in his father’s workshop, and in 1953-54 he served as an assistant to his father on his first visit to the United States. Susan Peterson, in her wonderful 1974 classic Shoji Hamada: A Potter’s Way & Work (www.ceramicartsdaily.org/books), records that in his prime, Shinsaku could throw 75 tea cups in an hour-quite a remarkable feat. In the foreword to that volume, Bernard Leach also pays tribute to Shinsaku’s wheel-throwing skills. One wonders how many of the pots that pass as Shoji’s were actually thrown by Shinsaku? Of course, neither Shoji Hamada nor anyone else who understands the mingei approach would say that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, most traditional ceramics around the world were made as part of a collaborative process. (Moreover, there is little doubt that Shoji personally worked in some way on every ceramic piece that his workshop sold under his name.)
Looking intently at Shinsaku’s ceramic pieces, the differences between his works and those of his father become clear. While the two share many of the same sturdy, utilitarian shapes, Shinsaku’s approach to decoration and glazing parts ways with that of his father. While Shoji focused on the motif, capturing simplified or abbreviated forms from nature or depicting energy, through techniques such as splash glazing, Shinsaku is more concerned with rhythm and pattern, using repeated forms to evoke a subtle emotional response and bring a sense of wholeness to his vessels. Moreover, Shinsaku’s work often has an engaging sense of liveliness and even humor to it. If the impression made by Shoji’s work could be thought of as a sublime smile, the feeling of Shinsaku’s work might be characterized as a joyous giggle.
Shinsaku’s second son, Tomoo Hamada, has taken yet a different tack from those of his father and grandfather, meanwhile maintaining certain consistencies that distinguish Hamada-lineage ceramics. Tomoo’s pots utilize essentially the same materials as those of Shinsaku and Shoji-glazes like reddish brown kaki, brown tenmoku, cobalt blue, white rice straw ash, bluish-white namako, green seiji, black kurogusuri, creamy nuka, translucent namijiro and runny-green wood ash, all used to cover a speckled tan clay dug and formulated right in Mashiko. Unlike his elders, however, Tomoo has become much more daring in the use of unconventional shapes, extensive application of overglaze enamelled decorations, and surface textures. In particular, his tiered flasks are very progressive, and unlike anything seen before in a mingei genre. It is clear that Tomoo has been looking beyond the works of his forebears, examining works from the early English Arts and Crafts movement, and even from Art Nouveau.
Many of Tomoo’s works aim for a vibrant and recherché effect; repetition plays an important role in his skillfully and generously applied overglaze enamel decoration, creating an almost textile-type surface on many of his works. His favorite motif no doubt is a type of shell-rondel; it appears not only in relief and in enamels, but even in openwork. Although his pieces are all vessels, some of them would be difficult to use, and seem created to be admired on a shelf rather than handled by their owners. Among such works, those of unconventional or asymmetrical shapes stand out. For use or not for use-that is the question that has haunted both vessel potters and their buyers since handmade ceramics first outstripped their production line counterparts in cost. One can imagine that, today, relatively few of Shoji’s many surviving works are used on a daily basis, and most are probably never used except for display. Tomoo seems to have made a practical choice to create pieces that are, first and foremost, satisfying visually, and to let the purchasers find ways to use them if they so choose.
The world of traditional ceramics in Japan naturally places great emphasis on lineage. Lines of potters that began in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century are now in their fourteenth or fifteenth generations. A lineage of only three generations may seem insignificant by comparison, but the works of the Hamada family make it clear that it is not the length of the line that is most important, but rather the quality of the work.
This essay is from the exhibition catalog for “Hamada: Three Generations,” June 13-July 20, 2009 at Pucker Gallery (www.puckergallery.com) in Boston, Massachusetts.
the author Dr. Andrew L. Maske has held positions at the Peabody Essex Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design and Harvard University. He is currently Assistant Professor of Art History (Asianist) at the University of Kentucky, where he is researching connections in ceramics between the nations of East Asia.