Adventuring with Ceramics- Life as Tokuda Yasokichi, and the Traditions of “Japan Kutani” Ware

Tokuda Yasokichi IV is a potter who specialises in Kutani ware. She succeeded her father, Tokuda Yasokichi III, who was designated a Living National Treasure. We asked her about her life and unique worldview, and how they helped her utilise the beautiful, vivid colours of the Kutani gosai-de (classical five colours) she inherited from her predecessors to create her own style.


Tokuda Yasokichi IV

Beginnings in pottery - Her father and Nakamura Kinpei

Tokuda Yasokichi III

Ever since I was in nursery, I took part in many extracurricular activities, so I never properly saw how my father looked when he was concentrating on his work as a potter. In fact, at that time, I didn’t even know he was working as a potter.


When the war ended, I think it was a very tough time for my father. He’d lost sight of his goals and values. I think that was why he never forced me to do anything; not once did he say he wanted me to take over the family ceramics trade.

In my twenties, I enrolled at the Ishikawa Prefectural Institute for Kutani Pottery, which became my first step into the world of ceramics. Of course, I’d seen my father’s finished pieces before, and I’d also gone with him to exhibitions, but I didn’t have the first clue about how soft clay could be made into hard, polished ceramic art. My father had never taught me anything about pottery.

Studying at the Institute was what got me thinking about my approach towards craftsmanship and my potential future career as a potter. It’s as if I started to feel responsible for the cost and value of creating ceramics, as well as the pieces themselves.

At the Institute, I began to train under Nakamura Kinpei. Mr. Kinpei comes from Kanazawa, and he creates all sorts of pieces using the Tokyo-yaki style. Pottery is being employed in architecture more and more. For example, when the Shinkansen at Kanazawa Station first began operating, I created some ceramic panels to be displayed in the station. Each time I partake in that sort of work, I cannot deny the influence Mr. Kinpei had on me. He was the one who taught me that even architecture has a place in the ceramics industry.


Responsibility and purpose as a potter

Tokuda Yasokichi's studio

“When I was younger, the societal idea that women must get married was very strong, and I was also planning to become a housewife eventually. I regarded my pottery career as a simple hobby or life experience, and I never even thought I would inherit the family trade.”


“After my father passed away, my floristry teacher told me, ‘nowadays, one year is effectively the same amount of time ten years used to be. Once a year has passed, everyone will forget the Yasokichi name. You’ll have to inherit the trade within half a year.’ Those words of authority were the final push I needed to make my decision.”

“Since the name of Tokuda Yasokichi was passed to me by fate rather than choice, I did unfortunately have times where my heart wavered. After earthquakes, rejections, sickness, the pandemic… before I knew it, I was telling my staff I wanted to step down. However, I simply couldn’t leave my elderly mother, my staff, and my manager behind – they always encouraged me. That sense of purpose kept me upright.”


“I think that watching my father’s back as he worked all those years ago might have been what instilled that sense of responsibility and purpose in me. People do say ‘what’s learnt in the cradle is carried to the grave’, after all.”


The joy of bearing - the Tokuda Yasokichi name

“Kutani ware is an indispensible facet of my life. It has transcended a simple hobby or job, and instead feels like a partner who operates in tandem with me as I go forth in life. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Kutani ware is the reason I’m here today.”


“I’m so glad I inherited the Tokuda Yasokichi name. Many say that women are still in a low standing throughout the world, but I believe we should all respect each other as individuals. In the modern age, there are even female pioneers in pottery. When I think of how I couldn’t walk or eat properly after getting sick, it makes me extremely happy that I’ve been able to forge my own path in ceramic art.”


“There comes a time when a woman has to make a choice about her working life. At a young age, she has to consider whether she’ll have children or not, and decide on her future based on that fact. I came out the other side of that difficult time, and found myself with a future vision, thus I was able to say ‘let’s keep on giving it our all’ to people who were in their seventies. I really hope that my journey as a woman who kept on working after overcoming sickness and societal pressures will inspire all sorts of people.”


 

1. Coloured glaze bowl - In the Distance

A prize-winning piece created the year before Yasokichi IV took over from her father. It was displayed at the Japanese Traditional Crafts Exhibition, and it was the first piece to use Yasokichi III's colours after his succession.

2. Coloured glaze pot - Fresh Ears of Rice

Inspired by the vast paddy field outside the Tokuda Yasokichi studio.


3. Coloured glaze pot - Flower on the Altar

When Tokuda Yasokichi offered up prayers to her forefathers during the coronavirus pandemic, she noticed a flower blooming on the altar. This work was created with that image in mind.


 

Keeping up the traditions of Japanese beauty and “Japan Kutani”

A piece I created called Shoryu (Rising Dragon) is being stored by the British Museum. I created the piece a year after my father died, with a vision of a dragon who cries large tears of snowflakes as it flies up towards the heavens. To represent the dragon flying upwards, I trusted in the power of gravity; I fired the bowl upside down.

I like to examine Buddhist concepts such as impermanence, the cycle of rebirth, and the billion-worlds system through my work. I think ceramic art encapsulates messages which transcend the limitations of words, and brings comfort to people who are dying as well as their carers.


After having my work stored at the British Museum and holding a solo exhibition in New York, I thought I would have no regrets as a potter if I were to die. However, after I fell ill with cancer, I made Kurenai no Tobira (the Crimson Door). I created this piece with the double doors of the intensive care unit in mind. When it became successful, I realised that there’s still a lot more in store for me if I keep on living.

My father’s work was characterised by sharp lines, but I strive towards subtle changes to make my style more round and feminine. I ask myself how I can use my hands to express what’s in my heart in order to comfort people and lighten the burdens of anyone who looks at my work. While creating, I put a lot of effort into making it something that can soothe people with just a glance, and capture their love for a long time.


Coloured glaze vase - Rising Dragon Fired upside down in the kiln. Created with a vision of a dragon flying upwards as tribute to Tokuda Yasokichi III.

Kutani gosai-de and the colours her father passed down

The colours alone aren’t what make ceramic art. There’s also the person who mixes and paints them, the person who lights the kiln, temperature control, and design. When all of these things come together, a piece of ceramic art is born. Pottery is like a flowing river; I have to constantly keep on researching new shapes and colour compositions. My sense of value is also something which keeps on changing. Nothing about my craft stays the same at any one time.


My father left me some colour compositions behind. But, if I had simply settled for those and never bothered to investigate more, I would never have gotten anywhere. I continue my research, and the colours continue to differ from what my father left me. The work itself is a tough job, but depending on the temperature and conditions of the kiln used, the product comes out differently, which also makes it a very interesting pursuit.


The god of kilns sometimes gifts me with a piece that’s beyond what I could ever have created or imagined by myself. I believe that the more I challenge myself, more doors will open to me. I have a vision to meet new people, and to continue this journey along with my audience. Through the four seasons, and through the colours they create, we’ll embark on an adventure that never gets boring. Who knows what lies ahead? There might be even more delightful discoveries awaiting us.

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