Mikawachi was the home to Hirado ware, which is now called Mikawachi ware. (see also Ayatakado Field Trip to Mikawachi). The first Hirado Tousyo was appointed by the feudal lord of Hirado as a potter to establish the kilns to produce porcelain in Mikawachi in 1637. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the family created highly artistic porcelain wares ordered by the Hirado feudal administration. They have produced porcelain with high quality for generations. With his wife and a painter Eriko, Fujimoto Gakuei, the 13th generation of Hirado Tousyo, studies ceramics further to create even better pieces than the ones the predecessors in Mikawachi have created.
Ayatakado interviews Fujimoto Gakuei and Eriko to ask them what inspires their creativity in the environment where tradition has lasted for 400 years.
Interview with Fujimoto Gakuei
- Your family has handed down the name of Hirado Tousyo for generations. Was it already scheduled that you would carry on the name of the 13th Hirado Tousyo when you were young?
We had many potters and painters in Mikawachi back then. I saw their lives as craftspeople and I thought I didn't want to be like them. However, I watched a film titled “Roots”, the leading character looked for his roots in the story, and I was motivated to grub up my family history. Then I found that there were 12 generations before me, and I even saw our name in old documents. It was when I turned 20, and that made me interested in ceramics.
- So you stayed away from ceramics until then.
I stayed away from it but there was something to admire with the artisans' skills. I saw them throwing pots on wheels and applying wash paintings on large dishes, and I thought that I wanted to give it a try. I thought they had great skills and there was something inspired me there.
- Please tell me about the time when you were learning skills and then you started your own production in Mikawachi.
After I saw “Roots” and researched history of Mikawachi, I found that the artisans in the old days studied painting first. So I thought I had to study painting and went to Kyoto. I studied Japanese painting in Kyoto for 4, 5 years. Then I came back here but I felt like learning pottery outside Mikawachi, so I went to Tobe. When I was in Tobe, however, the craftspeople there told me to go home. They said that I should study in Mikawachi, or neighbouring Arita, which were the places producing first class ceramics. Then I came back to Mikawachi but I was told to study somewhere outside, so I was apprenticed to a ceramics manufacturer in Arita in the end. At that time, I also learnt throwing from a master artisan in Hasami to be able to make round-shaped vessels. I had a master painter who I often talked to near here but I acquired necessary technical skills from neighbouring regions though I lived in Mikawachi. Because Arita, Hasami and Mikawachi are in the same Hizen cultural region where we share the same ceramics production methods, what I learnt from Arita and Hasami are basically practiced in Mikawachi, too. When I finally started my career in Mikawachi, I wanted to create something that hadn't been created here before. In Mikawachi, no potter had created so called yohen (colour variation during firing). It wasn't made in Japan before the Meiji period. Potters started using shinsha (oxblood ⁄ copper red glaze) or yuriko (underglaze copper red) for decoration in Meiji Japan but all the works made then were not great. I wanted to give it a try and I have been making yohen wares since then.
As I carried on, I realised that the works created without respecting the history of Mikawachi were not highly evaluated. I tried executions of many different porcelain wares and created something new that no one had created before as by-products from the trial, but they were not evaluated at all. They were not evaluated appropriately because no one had ever done them before. The truth dawned on me as I improved my skills of throwing and painting, and then the eggshell porcelain ware that had been always by my side came into sight (see also Ayatakado notes Eggshell Porcelain Ware). Then I started working on it and finally I restored lost production methods successfully after a few years of trial and error. The very first time I made it, I wondered if it was the real eggshell ware that I had been trying to recreate. I wondered if I really recreated what no one had created for last 100 years.
Around that time I came to know that I wouldn't make better pieces than the old eggshell porcelain as long as I tried to recreate them. You know it is said that copies cannot excel the original. I was thinking how I could make better pieces than the originals all the time, then I came up with an idea that I had to aim for the execution that the master-hands had aimed for in the past. To do that, I thought simply following the inherited methods was not enough but improving techniques was something necessary. Then I found it in antique Chinese ceramics which had both advanced technologies and long history of ceramics production. I researched on the old Jingdezhen kilns in China with some experts' help, then I found that the potters worked at the kilns officially owned by the government of the times, no matter if they were in Japan or the continent, were the same. They spent all their energy and time on ceramics so intensively.
A man named Kanamori Tokusui researched on all of the ceramic wares in Japan and wrote a book at the end of Japan's early modern period. He wrote about Hirado ware in the book. He asked the master potter of Mikawachi at that time why the descendants of Korean potters, which means the potters in Mikawachi, didn't make Korean ceramics but made porcelain, Chinese ceramics. The master answered that porcelain was more valuable and it required higher skills and techniques. When craftspeople aim for a better piece, they need higher skills and techniques. Korean potters brought pottery techniques from Korea but I think their goal was the Jingdezhen wares. I have to make effort not just to acquire old artisans' skills but to achieve what they tried to achieve. Otherwise, you can't excel their skills. You want to make better pieces than the ones they made, don't you?
- Porcelain production requires perfection. Isn't it hard for you to make innumerable test pieces to create perfect ones?
I like mathematicians. Each mathematician has numerous theories that make up the background in his or her research, but what we can see is a tiny part of them. About 20 years ago, Sir Andrew Wiles, a British mathematician, proved Fermat's Last Theorem which had been unproven for about 360 years until then. What he said in a documentary programme on BBC impressed me. He said “Knowing Fermat's Last Theorem is easy but proving it is a little difficult”. He didn't say it was very difficult. As a creator, I want to say it's a little difficult to make what I make. It doesn't sound nice to me to say it's very difficult. Years ago in Mikawachi, when I saw the artisans, who have passed away now, were working, I heard them say “it's a little bit difficult”. They described their skills like that way knowing that it was only them who were able to perform them. That is the way we describe our work in Mikawachi. The skills and knowledge accumulated in Mikawachi for hundreds of years have made us say like that. If you are the first person who discovers something new, you probably want to claim that it's you who did that. But I like the way to describe my creation “is a little bit difficult”.
- You were born in Mikawachi and grew up in the environment where craftspeople with great skills were working nearby and saw the pieces of their works in your everyday life. Did it nurture your observing eye and attitude to creation?
Yes, but I didn't quite notice it. I think our learning ability is nurtured in that way. There are some easy methods but they are not supposed to be done during production. What I feel when I'm working is I can't take a shortcut no matter how easy it is. However, you can derive benefits from taking a detour anyway.
- On the basis of your experiences and skills, what do you think you will create?
You shouldn't just satisfy a market demand but you shouldn't just make what you want to make either.
Now what I'm looking for is still chaotic. The more you classify pottery techniques and study them in detail, the more chaotic they become. Both glazes or pigments. I like the things unclear to me because I think I'm a Japanese. The Japanese don't bring things to completion. Once you have achieved completion, you need to deny everything you've done when you move on to the next. I like to be in the state where I always make good effort to create better pieces bit by bit and try to make them closer to completion.
- You describe yourself as a ceramicist and scientist.
Only the ways left for potters are either being ceramicists, craft artists, or handcraft manufacturers. No one aims to be an artist and also scientist. In Mikawachi, we call a great potter “master (or mentor) potter” since centuries ago. They are researchers as well as masters. I like this expression.
Interview with Fujimoto Eriko
- Please tell me what made you decide to be a ceramicist.
I was born and grew up in a sarayama, which is different sarayama from Mikawachi, where there were commercial kilns. When I was a child, there were many ceramics manufacturers near me and their workshops were my playground then. My grandfather was a merchant who dealt in ceramic tableware and my parents took over the business, so I was surrounded by ceramics pretty much at my home. Even so, the environment didn't make me think to be a ceramicist, and I became a public servant after I graduated from college.
When I worked for the city, I had a responsibility to take guests to Mikawachi as a guide, then I realised Mikawachi was a ceramics producing community with a long history when I looked at it objectively. Before then, it had been an everyday scene to me so I hadn't been aware of being in such an environment. My great grandfather was a painter, and one of his works was hung on the wall in my parents' house. I really liked it but it didn't made me want to paint motifs and patterns on ceramics. However, I came to want to learn painting after I had a job in the city office. In Mikawachi, there was a successor training program that provided evening painting classes. I wasn't a successor of a ceramics manufacturer so they said I was not eligible for studying in the classes but I said I really want to study painting, then they allowed me to join in the classes at last. The karako-e my teacher at that time painted fascinated me and I asked him to teach me how to paint karako first, and that's how I started my career as a painter.
- Please tell me about your sometsuke (blue and white ⁄ underglaze cobalt) works.
What makes sometsuke different from Japanese painting is the pigment that is melted in the vitrified glaze after fired at 1300 degrees Celsius. The process slightly changes depending on what I paint. I think that is beautiful, and I want to make use of the characteristic features unique to gosu (cobalt oxide with manganese) pigment. Traditionally in Mikawachi, painters draw fine and delicate lines when they apply paintings on porcelain and I admire it. I also think Kameyama style is beautiful. Kameyama style uses the pigment that is high in gosu content and it melts in the vitrified glaze, which makes drawn lines blurred. By using different types of gosu, I want to make changes on paintings. When I paint karako-e, I use a type of gosu that I can draw fine and sharp liens with, but I use another type of gosu to paint arabesque patterns in order to make the lines blurred. Also, what make hand-painted pieces different from printed ones are depth and matiere, and I want to express them with lively brushwork.
I paint many karako-e designs. To me, karako does not simply represent Chinese children but embodiment of spirits or fairies living in nature. I think my lifework is painting karako. I have learnt how to paint karako-e (karako design) in the traditional style but the karakos that I depict are not bound by tradition. I want to depict them blended in nature, which make you feel peaceful.
Glazes applied over paintings change the colour after firing. My husband is a specialist of glazing so I usually ask him for his advice. Gosu pigment turns slightly purple when the glaze contains natural yusu ash, while ordinary lime glaze doesn't make this change. Ceramics production is in a field of chemistry. You finish painted patterns and designs by using chemical reactions. I pay close attention to combinations of gosu pigments and types of glazes. This is how we can create the pieces that are different from the mass-produced ones. I want to express my creativity as a ceramicist in that way.
- Now we can calculate chemical reactions to some extent, but the potters in old days repeated production tests countlessly.
When I visited Jingdezhen in China, I saw small kilns lined up in a row. Ancient potters there used those kilns to fire test pieces one after another all year long, and that was how they improved the Jingdezhen wares dramatically and created that much large variety of ceramics. They didn't have to pat attention to the cost efficiency. The potters in the old days of Hizen region, on the other hand, used large climbing kilns that were more cost efficient but fired only a couple of times a year. They trusted the intuition of their craftsmanship and made well-prepared schedules for production tests to improve skills and techniques by using those large kilns in Hizen region.
We made countless test pieces when we were trying to create eggshell and yohen wares. I felt like we were chemists. Then I understood that repeated tests improved ceramics.
- The pieces that we see now are based on endlessly repeated tests.
That's right. The ceramic shards excavated from the massive dumping grounds in Jingdezhen tell us the processes to develop complete pieces. They fired test pieces that much. That made me think Jingdezhen was extraordinary. What makes me feel Mikawachi is extraordinary is that the potters here knew the characteristics of the clay very well. They fired test pieces on the basis of their instincts that they thought they were supposed to do.
- Is that because the kilns used be sponsored by the feudal administration and the craftspeople in Mikawachi could spend time on improving quality as much as they wanted under the protection of the feudal administration ?
Yes, I think so. The craftspeople in Mikawachi didn't take account of costs they spent on throwing, painting and modelling.
- Do you think your husband has inherited the craftsmanship of the sponsored kiln in Mikawachi? He fires many test pieces to create better ones.
Yes, I think he has inherited it from his ancestors in that sense. I guess he has a strong will to make good pieces. Every day, we talk about our production all day long. Sometsuke represents Mikawachi ware now but there are records and ceramic shards that prove that the Mikawachi potters in the Meiji period fired yohen wares. The craftspeople in old days searched for the pottery in the next stage. That was why my husband wanted to create something new like yohen pieces.
- Let me ask you about your production. Do you always paint the pieces that your husband forms?
Yes. I rarely ask him to make what I want to paint on. I usually see what he has formed and decide the designs that I think go well with the shape of the vessels. We sometimes talk about the paintings when we have orders from customers. I haven't studied paintings at art school so when I can't decide what to paint, I ask for his advice as he knows more about styles and rules.
- Doesn't it make you feel uneasy as well as enjoyable that you don't know how your works will turn out to be until they are unloaded from the kiln?
Yes. Sometimes I find pieces are not fired in the way I expected, and sometimes fired pieces turn out much better than I thought. You have to leave your works to fire before you finish them, and that makes ceramics attractive and unique. You have to be humble because you can't finish your works without using powers from nature such as firing and chemical reactions to some extent. I feel gratitude to them when our works are unloaded from the kiln.
- Unlike earthenware or stoneware, porcelain requires perfect finishing.
Porcelain and earthenware or stoneware are two different things in a sense. Porcelain cannot generate that warm texture. Porcelain production requires another kind of skills. What you see is everything, especially white porcelain. A tiny pinhole spoils porcelain and we have to discard imperfect pieces.
- I think that precision makes porcelain beautiful.
I think so, too. Doing sometsuke work makes me tired, even though I sit all day long. That's because it requires close attention. I sometimes feel like painting bold designs like Tobe ware but I like delicate design motifs and patterns after all.