Respect old things. Experience those old things. But take the old outer shell
away and create something new from it. This is the true nature of "tradition."
-Takuo Kato, Japan, current "Living National Treasure"
It is meaningless just to inherit the traditions of Japanese pottery, unless
you add your own ideas...but if you overdo yourself, you might ruin the
traditions. The point is to make the best use of the old methods and ideas.
-Toyozo Arakawa, Japan, former "Living National Treasure"
Every pot you make must be your own original creation. It should not be a
mere arrangement of old techniques. You see, we are living in this world of
today, so therefore we must use the fire of today and sing the songs of
today. It sounds easy, but it's a very hard thing to do.
-Toshisada Wakao, Japan, potter.
Over the years, these quotations about the nature of tradition have found
their way into my collection of notable ideas. But even with these ideas as a
backdrop, I found my notions of tradition being challenged when I met
Japanese potter Shiho Kanzaki.
Neither Jack Troy's thoughtful introduction to Kanzaki through photos of his
work, nor Karl and Ginny Beamer's invitation to meet him at the autumn 1995
opening of the Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, Kanzaki-Beamer Dream Kiln (see
Ceramics Monthly, April 1996, page 16) prepared me for what I was about to
encounter: Here was a Japanese potter making pots by traditional methods who,
at the same time, was flying in collectors to select work fired in an anagama
he had built in America. Here was a potter wood firing in the traditional
manner-for ten days with 25 to 30 tons of 40-year-old red pine-who in the
next breath might be talking about modem speeds, computer bulletin boards or
the fact that his new home page on the World Wide Web had been designated
"ceramics site of the month" by subscribers to Australia's Claynet.
Some of these facets to Kanzaki's life and work jarred my assumptions about
what it means to work as a traditional potter, and about the nature of
tradition itself. It seems a bit of a paradox to call oneself a traditional
potter, and at the same time be so thoroughly entrenched in the 20th century.
However, some of what initially seemed a paradox became at least partly
resolved as I began to learn more about Kanzaki. Born in 1942, Shiho Kanzaki
grew up in Shigaraki, one of Japan's oldest ceramic centers. He remembers, as
a child, visiting antiques shops with his father. There he occasionally saw
Shigaraki and Iga ware from the Azuchi-Momoyama period (16th century). These
pieces, he says, had a great impact on him.
Having been born and raised in Shigaraki, though, he was perhaps too familiar
with pottery. Being a potter did not seem to be a particularly exciting
occupation. At that time, the occupation did not carry much status.
Additionally, it was Kanzaki's responsibility as oldest son to either succeed
to his father's job (as a retailer of rice, firewood and charcoal) or to
choose an occupation of higher rank than his father's. So it was that in
spite of his interest in pottery, Kanzaki decided to study law. He graduated
from Kansai University in 1963, then began what may be the most difficult
part of the process in Japan-preparing for the national licensing
examination. It is extremely difficult to pass, and students often spend
years studying for it.
At least three events during the next two years had a significant effect on
the course of Kanzaki's life. The first was: As a means of supporting himself
during his years of study, Kanzaki decided to sell automatic car-washing
machines. Because he was compensated on the basis of his sales, rather than
on the amount of time he spent selling, this seemed the perfect occupation
for him while studying for the exam. And Kanzaki was successful--very
successful. Within the first year, his selling accomplishments also led to a
change within Kanzaki himself. By his own admission, he became arrogant and
selfish-so much so that he destroyed the harmony between his coworkers, which
actually led his boss to quit his job. The timely, candid reflections of a
respected friend revealed to Kanzaki just how much agony and conflict he had
caused. This was a tremendous shock. Partly as a means of taking
responsibility for his behavior, he soon quit this job.
Then, while continuing to prepare for the examination, Kanzaki began to have
some misgivings about becoming a lawyer, so he decided to visit a lawyer
friend. Observing his friend's life, Kanzaki wondered aloud if the only thing
that counted in the world of law was logic, if person-to-person relationships
were not needed, and would be lost. His friend confirmed his worst
suspicions, adding that he (the friend) believed that by having exclusively
studied law, he had missed some of the most important things in life.
Finally, Kanzaki began thinking about an exhibition he had seen while he was
a senior in college. It was a show of ancient Indian art featuring the
sculpture of a goddess. The piece had conveyed to him a strong and unusual
sense of freedom. The more he thought about it, the more his yearning
increased for the freedom it had implied.
As the force of these three events became more integrated-and at just the
moment when he was nearly prepared to fulfill his role as eldest son, Kanzaki
changed his mind. He decided not to be a lawyer. Instead, he would become a
Nearly everyone around him opposed his decision. "Only the uneducated become
potters," said his father. (Having himself been denied a higher education,
Kanzaki's father looked forward with great anticipation to his son passing
the examination.) Eventually it became clear to everyone that Kanzaki was
firmly resolute in his decision. But when his father finally accepted his
decision, it was clear that what he had envisioned and what Kanzaki was
envisioning were quite different things: His father thought he would be
kamamoto (a production potter) and would make quantities of work for everyday
use-an apparently dependable source of income.
Kanzaki could not live with the thought of producing poorly made pots and
calling them Shigaraki-yaki. He decided instead to recreate the old-style
ware of Shigaraki and Iga, "the true Shigaraki-yaki" as he saw it. He
considered himself toko (ceramics artist), and was ready to take on this
singular vision with all its attending insecurities.
He started by visiting a now-abandoned kiln site from the Azuchi-Momoyama
period, and began investigating the nature of the natural ash glaze of the
old-style Shigaraki and Iga ware. He then established a studio in Osaka,
while still living in his father's house in Shigaraki. His work began to
mature, but success was elusive. Sales in department-store galleries amounted
to one or two pieces per month-not enough to meet his daily needs. In order
to support himself, he decided to take out a loan and set up a retail shop
where he primarily sold the work of other production potters. While sales at
the shop progressed, they only paid for overhead and the interest on the
loan. Financially, he was making no progress at all. In the meantime, the
expenses of production were escalating, and Kanzaki was driven further into
debt. The overdue outstanding loans were sullying his good name and, by
implication, he was dishonoring his father's name. To make matters worse, an
acquaintance who had offered Kanzaki an exhibition took a large number of his
pots to a distant city, talked him into extending a significant loan (which
Kanzaki naively financed by borrowing from his students and friends), then
disappeared with both the pots and the money. The pursuit of his vision and
this series of unfortunate business missteps seemed to be driving Kanzaki
irrevocably into debt. The loss of $20,000 worth of pots, plus the additional
irretrievable loan (of nearly the same amount) to his scurrilous friend,
placed him at odds with his students, his friends and his family.
Finally, in 1969, his father offered him a deal. He reasoned that if Kanzaki
took "even a A'normal' job-like being a full-time production potter-you
would have more time to pursue your artistic vision than you do now, hustling
as you are to pay for your indebtedness." His father said if Kanzaki would
leave the costly pursuit of his artistic vision and become primarily a
production potter, he would bring his accounts into balance and even repay
the debts that resulted from the exhibition fiasco.
Amazingly, Kanzaki declined his father's offer. He told him there was no room
in his life for such a compromise. In what amounted to both a critique of the
corrupt warehouse marketing system and an expression of the convictions of
his emerging artistic vision, Kanzaki said to his father, "I cannot be both
kamamoto and toko at the same time." For Kanzaki, it was an "either/or"
proposition and he chose to continue his work as a ceramics artist.
For his father, the situation was also equally clear: he terminated the
father-son relationship, withdrew his financial support, and forced Kanzaki,
his wife and their daughter to leave his (the father's) house. The next few
years were difficult. Kanzaki and his wife moved into the cheapest apartment
they could find-near the Osaka airport. His dream was to build his own
anagama. When he made this dream known to an acquaintance back in Shigaraki,
the man offered to rent him a hill on his property and promised, since
Kanzaki was still an outcast from his own family, not to reveal his identity
to anyone. For his part, Kanzaki "made my hair long and kept an unshaven
face" as a means of disguising his identity while building the anagama.
Throughout the next years, Kanzaki's family lived in Osaka and he visited
them about once a week. Meanwhile, he lived as a recluse without electricity
in the small tin hut that he had built on the rented property. It was a
struggle to feed his family, and occasionally they were required to live off
the generosity of others. Kanzaki particularly appreciates what he calls "the
providence of meeting wonderful people."
There was the Zen priest who in a roundabout way taught him about selling.
The priest reminded him that in the same way that Kanzaki was single-minded
in his pursuit of his artistic vision, he likewise needed to be single-minded
when it came to selling, that in each moment one needs to concentrate fully
on what is appropriate to that moment. "The same in making-the same in
One potter in particular, Suketoshi Matsuyama, offered generous and
uncensored assistance. Instead of being secretive and protective, he invited
the aspiring potter into his studio and allowed him to examine his kiln, even
encouraging Kanzaki to take measurements and make notes on its construction.
Then, when Kanzaki's two initial firings resulted in failures (after having
finally completed the anagama in 1973), Matsuyama invited Kanzaki to join him
at one of his firings. Although he used a pyrometer, he really did not depend
upon it. Rather, he explained to Kanzaki how he trusted his own insights to
read the flow and amount of fire.
This experience had a significant impact upon Kanzaki. However, all that he
had learned was severely tested at his very next firing. Because he could not
afford the time to dry the firewood, Kanzaki fired with undried wood, and
experienced tremendous difficulty in achieving temperature. Just as he was
ready to give up, Matsuyama and his wife arrived for a visit. They expected
tea. This Kanzaki provided, although with a great deal of internal agitation;
he was anxious to press Matsuyama with questions about the firing emergency
he was facing. Matsuyama calmly drank his tea, and before Kanzaki could ask
anything at all about the firing, shared a story about how he had once used
undried wood, but had gotten great results. Then, just as quickly as they had
arrived, the guests left.
Matsuyama's story was all the encouragement Kanzaki needed. He immediately
went back to the kiln, removed the pyrometer and tried to simply rely on his
senses in an attempt to listen to the voice of the fire. Kanzaki and his
helpers started splitting the wood as thinly as possible, then began
cross-hatch stoking and better monitoring of the charcoal in the firebox, and
the temperature started to rise. After nine days of stoking, the firing ended
successfully. Kanzaki describes this experience as "going beyond A'common
sense' toward listening to the voice of the anagama, the voice of the fire,
and the voice of the clay."
So successful was the firing that Matsuyama agreed Kanzaki could identify
himself as his "disciple." This meant that Kanzaki had received a kind of
"endorsement" from the master, and Kanzaki's professional credibility was
A third important meeting was with Hakuo Kano, a master potter who lived in
Kyoto. Kanzaki was taken to visit Kano by another potter (of greater rank
than Kanzaki), and was received by Kano as a "main guest" (of greater rank).
He served tea to Kanzaki ten times in ten different teabowls, each one more
beautiful than the previous bowl.
Then Kano said that he would bring tea three more times...in the three most
beautiful bowls. But Kanzaki became quite confused. The first of the three
Kanzaki regarded as not even as nice as the very first teabowl. The second
had a sharp edge where his lips touched-a violation of all the common
knowledge associated with tea ceremony. And the third bowl had no foot; when
set down on the floor, it rocked back and forth (though not enough to spill
This was a startling and incongruous experience for Kanzaki. All the "best"
bowls went beyond "the common sense of the teabowl." They, in fact, expanded
the definition of what a teabowl was. From this experience Kanzaki learned
that "a potter should create what he/she thinks to be beautiful, and not be
bound only by the definitions of the common sense."
A fourth "providence of meeting wonderful people" was with Toshihiko Matsuda,
owner of a pyrometer company. Matsuda himself had gone through significant
financial difficulty, and seemed to have developed a great deal of trust and
generosity from that experience. He extended credit to Kanzaki for pyrometric
products, with the understanding that Kanzaki would pay for the products as
soon as he could. On another occasion, Matsuda made a sizable cash loan to
Kanzaki, with the agreement that he repay it by a certain date. Only later
did Kanzaki learn just how great a trust Matsuda had placed in him: if he had
not been able to repay the loan on the appointed day, Matsuda's business
would have suffered seriously.
But in the same way that Kanzaki appreciates the support of generous people,
he has openly adopted a stance of appreciation toward those who abandoned him
in his times of need, even toward those who took advantage of him when he was
most impoverished. Of these apparently polar experiences, he says, "The truth
is...because of these encounters, I have become what I am now....Everyone has
his/her own task, and each has a responsibility to fulfill that task-no one
else can fulfill it. My task is to create my own pieces...pieces that cannot
be made by anyone else.... The tree that overcomes severe weather reveals its
real beauty. It is the same for people....To overcome life's difficulties
reveals one's true beauty." Since those early years of struggle, Kanzaki has
gone on to significant achievement. He primarily makes objects for the tea
ceremony, and has attained quite a following among collectors. And he was
reconciled with his father. Eight years ago, he was able to invite his mother
and father to come live their remaining years in his house.
Stories like this-of success eked out of hardship and commitment, of
single-minded pursuit of a high calling, of an unwillingness to compromise-do
tend to capture our attention (perhaps even to indict us, to some extent),
but sometimes stories such as this begin to function as their own
justification. Indeed, some of us may have become suspicious of such tales,
simply because we have once-too-often been wooed by slick "advertising"
praising an amazing story, only to discover the virtual ineptitude of the
But Kanzaki's story is more than just slick advertising, more than just a
Japanese version of a Western tale of "from rags to riches," "hometown boy
makes good" or "pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps." In this case,
the story primarily functions as a backdrop for his claywork. Its telling is
important to provide a context for the pots, but it is the pots that hold the
real power. They have the kind of strength that may even challenge and
stretch our notions of what is beautiful (and this, I contend, is at least
part of the role of ceramic art).
Watching what happens to the pots over the years is one of the ways to
measure whether the story or the pottery is primal. If the story has become
an end in itself, the pots change little and become stale. But if the pots
are central and vital, they continue to change and grow, in stride with the
vitality of the maker.
"When you get to a certain level of quality," Kanzaki says, "you are
satisfied for the moment. But if the next firing brings pots of only equal
quality, since you have already enjoyed that achievement before, they will
not be as satisfying as before. As artists, it is our responsibility to
always pursue a better thing. I need to grow, to be better than before.
Likewise, my pots need to grow, to be better each time." Kanzaki brings
similar convictions to sales issues. He finds it difficult to sell pots if
they are less than the best, so continual improvement is an important part of
his sales ethic.
And predictably, Kanzaki holds that it is hypocritical for studio potters to
keep the best pots for themselves. "The best pots must be available for sale.
It is dishonest to hide or make unavailable your best work." I know of only
one time when Kanzaki has refused to sell his best work: A Buddhist priest
was visiting and saw a piece in Kanzaki's house that he especially admired.
After he inquired about its purchase, Kanzaki said it was not for sale. This
response displeased the priest very much, as he was very keen to purchase it.
Finally, Kanzaki explained his reasoning; he had come across his own piece in
a shop in Tokyo. Stumbling on it there, he saw it in a new way, and became
convinced that he must have it. So he purchased his own piece, at full price,
from the shop. "This," he explained, "is why I will not sell it to
you....[Since] I purchased it,...I don't need to sell it."
The priest understood Kanzaki's reasoning, but then surprised Kanzaki by
saying, "Well, since you do not need to sell it, I do not want to buy it.
However, since it is not for sale, why don't you give it to me for free?"
Kanzaki thought that he had misunderstood, or that the priest had misspoken.
But the request was clear. And Kanzaki was impressed by the priest's
repetition of his own comment about not needing to sell it, so he gave it to
One way to measure the success of contemporary potters who are working within
the parameters of a traditional discipline might be to put their pots
alongside the best from the past. But a better way to take a measurement of
one's loyalty to traditional ideals might be to assess how one has served to
advance that tradition, "respecting the old, but having taken the outer shell
away and created something new." In this respect, Kanzaki has forwarded and
advanced the tradition of which he is a part.
Also, although Kanzaki embraces the traditional methods of production, he is
not above appropriating contemporary tools and resources to share his
artistic vision with others. His home page (www.biwa.or.jp/~shiho/) is a
wonderful embodiment of how he combines the "oldest" with the "newest" in the
honest expression of "tradition." There you will find a history of the six
oldest pottery traditions in Japan, the history of Shigaraki pottery,
photographs of ancient Shigaraki pottery, a report on contemporary ceramic
arts in Shigaraki, a review of the history of the development of anagama
kilns, and a review of Kanzaki's anagamas (he has built 11 and is still
firing 4 of them), his kiln design and his approach to firing them. You will
also find selected photos of work produced in anagama-style kilns by other
potters from around the world. It is his hope that "by developing an Internet
home page, I might increase my opportunities to meet and talk with many more
people all over the world. And additionally, I would like [others] to be able
to see my friends' works. I think of them as my teachers."
Finally, there are the pots themselves. Kanzaki set out to recreate the pots
of the ancient Shigaraki and Iga traditions. Having done so, he did not
simply accept success and stop. He did not merely work at rearranging the old
techniques. Instead, he has added his own ideas, most recently resulting in a
series of "Textured Work."
But these works are not just an expression of Kanzaki's facility and
expertise; they were born as a natural phenomenon of the firing. Kanzaki
explains that one of his kilns is half underground. He reports that before
one firing, there were tremendous monsoons, which caused the bottom of the
kiln to be quite full of water. It was from that firing that he received the
first textured pieces.
Since then, he has attempted to determine what caused this natural texture to
develop (and be able to reproduce it). As he has come to understand the
dynamics of this process, he has concluded that the interaction of the
moisture (coming out of the ground) and the flames severely etches (or pits)
the surface of the clay. The very uneven surfaces then collect the natural
ash glaze in ways that create this crawl-like texture.
Some Shino-type glazes look this way because of the shrinkage difference
between the clay and the applied glaze; however, the effects that Kanzaki is
achieving come about by a firing phenomenon that he has learned to manage to
some extent. He has determined that it is necessary to have this interaction
between the flames and the moisture when the temperature in the kiln is
between 1230C and 1280C (2246F and 2336F). Normally, this occurs on day
four of his ten-day firing.
Ideally, he prefers the kiln to be damp to begin with. And, Kanzaki says, if
it rains really hard on days three and four of the firing, the water that
drains into the kiln arrives at just the right moment. (Japan's somewhat
predictable summer rains offer some assistance, but Kanzaki is, of course, no
more in control of the weather than the rest of us.)
By sharing his tradition with others around the world, by creating new
surfaces from old firing processes, Kanzaki has found ways of doing that
which "sounds easy, but it's a very hard thing to do," of extending the