Arita ware is said to have been born as Japan's first porcelain ware in 1616, when a Korean potter, Yi Sam-pyeong, came to Arita, and high-quality porcelain stone was discovered at Mount Izumi in the same area. In its early days, porcelain was mainly blue and white, with colored porcelain being introduced later. During the Genroku period (the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18 century), when the economy was vibrant, many resplendent works were created. After the Kyoho period (first half of the 18th century), when simplicity and frugality were encouraged, there was an increase in works with blank spaces, making use of the whiteness of the porcelain. The mass production of highly practical products also progressed, and porcelain came to be widely used by the public. Since then, masters and masterpieces have appeared in each of the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa periods. Porcelain makers continued to evolve in response to the demands of the times while expanding its range of expression and pursuing depth of technique, such as by adopting techniques from other production areas and improving them in their own way. As time went on, the emphasis gradually shifted to quality rather than quantity, taking advantage of the traditions, techniques, and brand power that were superior to those from other production areas. Even today, there are many young potters who inherit the techniques developed by their predecessors, while striving to express their own worldview in porcelain by diligently working on Arita ware.
One such up-and-coming potter is Akio Momota, who built his own pottery workshop and gallery in 2015, just before Arita ware celebrated its 400th anniversary, a goal he has had since his twenties. Inside the building with its impressive plastered walls, the space is illuminated by natural light and is lined with contemporary works created by Mr. Momota.
The Momota family served as the official potters of the Nabeshima clan, which ruled the area during the Edo period, and Mr. Momota himself studied pottery, including potter's wheel techniques, under Nitten artist Shiro Soejima and Shunemon Okugawa, who is known as the "modern master of the potter's wheel." The two masters were taciturn, and Mr. Momota worked hard to get close to them as much as possible by watching them work and repeatedly picturing their work in his mind.
"In the 400 years of Akita ware's history, various techniques have been gathered and deepened. The depth of our craftsmen's skills and wisdom is a strength that no other production area can match."
Today, Mr. Momota continues to research not only pottery techniques, but also clay and other materials in order to get closed to the form he is aiming for.
"I want to make something that only I can make. My main theme is to make my individuality stand out."
Seigo Nakamura, who specializes in white porcelain and celadon, where the focus is on the shape made by the potter's wheel, says that his grandfather, Seiroku, who was respected by Arita ware potters as the "god of the potter's wheel," taught him not only the technique, but the proper attitude to have when dealing with clay.
"My grandfather was a man who loved his work. He used his entire body, only about 140cm tall, to turn the wheel. It gives a great feeling to see the wheel properly centered and spinning beautifully. I think my grandfather spent his whole life enjoying it."
Since Mr. Seiroku dealt with while porcelain, Mr. Nakamura naturally chose white porcelain and celadon, where the form is the most important element of a piece. "I love working on the potter's wheel the most," says Mr. Nakamura, and his ideal is to work spontaneously and mindlessly, without needless exertion, while the rotating clay and himself become one.
"My grandfather used to say potters were like earthworms, who both make use of the soil and contribute to it. I also have the sense that I am not the center of the world. Good pottery is created when the capacity of the clay and my own skills come together. That's why you just have to get into it and keep working on it."
In today's porcelain industry, the casting method, in which liquid material is poured into a plaster mold made by a 3D printer, is more common than the handcrafting method using a potter's wheel. Even when comparing the two, "there is not much difference," says Nakamura.
"The percentage of pottery made with the potter's wheel is shrinking, but I believe that genuine pieces made with refined techniques will remain. Those who know can tell the difference by looking at it. I will continue to pursue the shapes and feelings that can only be realized using the potter's wheel."
Jun Nakao, who pursues his unique worldview by boldly cutting the pieces after shaping them on the potter's wheel, believes that the latest technologies, such as 3D printing, should not be outright dismissed.
"I think the reason why Arita ware has lasted for more than 400 years is because we have continued to do things differently from yesterday, without blindly following what we have now. For example, I think that porcelain made by casting using a 3D printer with painting on it is one of the expressions of Arita ware as well. What is important is how much we can improve our skills and make our individuality stand out on the path we believe in. I think it is important for potters like ourselves to continue to hone our skills so that we do not lose out to machine technologies and mass production, and find a way to face them without dismissing them.
The reason why Mr. Nakao focuses on cutting is because "I like to cut and see the shape gradually appear," he says. "I can focus on a technique for a long period of time precisely because I like it."
Pottery cannot just be beautiful in shape. If you put too much pressure on the clay, it will crack during the process of heating in the kiln and cooling. In particular, when the clay is cut, the thickness varies, so it cracks immediately if not carefully thought through. Mr. Nakao says that he is always thinking about how to determine the limits of the material and make the most of it.
"I think there is still a lot we can do. Arita ware has a long history, but I feel that there is still a part where we can take another step forward. I see the 400th anniversary as an opportunity to rethink about manufacturing. "
Mr. Hisaki Shomura, who was born in Arita and took over the family business, recalls with a laugh that when he first started his career as a potter, he was asked "Why did you choose Arita ware?" by art professionals, a question akin to an impenetrable Zen dialogue.
"They asked in rapid succession, 'Because it's the family business?' 'Because it's Arita?' I tried to say, 'Because I like making things,' but they said, 'Why pottery then?' I was unable to respond."
His heart was filled with regret, but at the same time he realized that he had never seriously thought about why he chose Arita ware. From that point on, he started asking himself questions and took action to seriously reconsider Arita ware from scratch. The process of questioning common sense and finding the right answer by himself. He ordered clay used in production areas all over the country, made many prototypes, and even conducted chemical analysis to confirm that Arita ware was the best for him. An unexpected discovery was the presence of a small amount of glaze ingredients in the clay, as indicated by the analysis results. He tried to extract the glaze component from the clay and fired a prototype using it.
"I was so excited when I opened the kiln. The result was a strange appearance, matte and glossy at the same time. I thought I found the answer to the question from before: 'It is my mission to show the new potential of Arita ware by taking the glaze out of the clay, which has only been used to make shapes for 400 years.'"
Many of Mr. Shomura's works are pottery pieces with impressive white gradation. In addition to the shading created by the unevenness of the carvings, he uses masking tape and glazes he has discovered himself to create shades of color using different glaze thickness."
Mr. Shomura says that he keeps in mind "Shuhari," the three stages of mastery, about which he heard form a person he respects. The first step is to follow the teachings of the predecessors, then to break out of the shell of the teachings, and then to establish one's own style, apart from the teachings. The passion of today's young potters, who have mastered "Shu," the first stage, passed through "Ha," the second, and achieve "Ri," the third stage, through trial-and-error, will surely add new depth and brilliance to the 400-year history of Arita ware.
A narrow valley surrounded by small mountains, where the town of Arita lies, developed rapidly after the 17th century as Japan's first porcelain production area. Today, Arita ware refers to porcelain produced in the area centered on Arita Town and including Imari, Takeo, and Ureshino. Arita ware possesses a wide range of expression, such as white porcelain, Yo-koku relief, blue-and-white, colored painting, celadon, lapis lazuli glaze, rust glaze, and cinnabar.
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