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Friendship and Influence:  part 1

A Japanese Friendship and its Influence on an American Potter:  A personal Narrative

copyright August 2007

Dick Lehman

all rights reserved

In 1992 I spent three weeks in Japan with the intention of visiting a variety of potters, ceramic sales galleries and museums.  While our schedule had a significant amount of flexibility, there was one immovable object:  I told my traveling companion and interpreter, Georgia Leichty, that the only absolutely non-negotiable day of the three weeks was the day that I had arranged to meet some potters in Tokoname. These appointments could not be changed!  She agreed.

Part of our travels (before going to Tokoname)  took us to Nagoya.  There we met up with Mr. Jyotaro Inoue, a 77-year-old friend of Georgia’s family. (For ease, I will use first and last names in the order we are used to, instead of ‘last name’ first as would be done in Japan.) Mr. Inoue asked what travel plans we had and where we were going.  Upon hearing of our interest in pottery and our plans to visit Tokoname, he replied, “I will take you there.  I grew up there.  I know everyone in Tokoname!” 

I reminded Georgia of the inviolability of my appointments in Tokoname.  After our three polite refusals (and what I believe to be an almost imperceptible elbow to his ribs by Mrs. Inoue) Mr. Inoue no longer persisted, and we thought that was the end of it.

However, the evening before our train trip to Tokoname, at 10:00 p.m. the P.A. system in the youth hostel called out Georgia’s name, asking her to come take a phone call.  I met Georgia in the lobby.  It was Mrs. Inoue on the phone telling us that Mr. Inoue had arranged everything as promised, but that SHE would be coming to meet us at the train station the next morning to take us for a day of visits that Mr. Inoue had arranged.  This was a complete surprise.  (How had she even found out where we were staying!?)  I reminded Georgia of how important my plans were to me…..that the appointments were made, that we had people expecting to house and feed us in just a few hours…in short – that I wasn’t willing to change my plans.

Georgia reminded me that to refuse the direct request of an elder Japanese woman would be the height of rudeness……absolutely unconscionable, and that we would need to respond in “the Japanese way”…which meant that we would call all our hosts, yet that evening, explaining honestly what had just happened.  They all complimented us on our response…they said that they understood.

I felt confused and more than a little put-out.

But what happened the next day was a real lesson……and in many ways was the single most important day of my trip to Japan.

As it turned out, Inoue san DID know EVERYONE in Tokoname.  An amazing day unfolded:  We were taken to meet Yoshiharu Sawada, a leading ceramic art critic (and the man who wrote the book about Tokoname for Kodansha Press).  The day-long trip Mr. Inoue had planned for us included stops at a museum, galleries, and the Tokoname Ceramic Institute’s impressive collection of ancient Tokoname ware – great huge pots nearly 1000 years old.  Mr. Sawada introduced us to two of the area’s most prominent ceramic artists, Josan Yamada (who later went on to be designated a Living National Treasure), and Mikio Oosako (of whom it was said that he was on the same trajectory….but who died suddenly from a stroke just a few years later).  The visit to Mr. Yamada included a trip to his kiln, some time in his showroom, and a participatory tutorial in tea-making.  Mr. Oosako, for his part, had pulled out all the stops for the elder Mr. Sawada and his American visitors:  a three hour dining experience which was unparalleled in all my time in Japan.  The meal started with sake in Mr. Oosako’s fine hand-made sake cups, which sat upon 11th-century Kamakura-era shard “saucers”, and ended with gifts of pots, viewing some of Oosako san’s personal ceramic collection, and a studio tour.

What initially appeared to be intrusive, thoughtless, and a little bossy, turned out to be an amazing gift from Mr. Inoue.  Clearly we had been treated to a set of experiences that we would never have been able to formulate for ourselves.  And in hindsight, it is clear to me that Mr. Inoue had gone to no small effort in order to shower these rich and unlikely experiences on a family friend and her unknown tag-along, American potter.  In the intervening years I have come to better understand Mr. Inoue’s kindness. 

When I returned to the States, I sent a thank-you note to Mr. Inoue.  To my surprise, he wrote back (in English) and included the gift of a lovely museum catalog documenting a recent ceramics exhibition he’d visited.  In turn, after some months, I sent Mr. Inoue the gift of one of my pots.  And here began an unlikely friendship that has lasted now for more than 15 years.

On a later visit to the United States to be installed as Japan’s Governor-Elect for the International Kiwanis organization, Mr. Inoue made a point to invite me to visit him in Indianapolis.  There, he cleared his schedule, and provided an interpreter for what turned out to be a four-hour long visit.  Mr. Inoue’s subsequent visits to the States have resulted in our spending many hours together.  He has shared his consuming passion for Japanese ceramics and has recounted his father’s and his uncle’s careers in ceramics.  He always brought gifts of pots and catalogs.  I shared with him the progress of my own work and exhibits and writing.  (He now, most likely, has the largest Japanese collection of Lehman-yaki pottery.)

Our conversations, in person and through correspondence, have branched out naturally to issues of family, our joint love of gardening, our shared political concerns, and our hopes for peace between nations.  In one of his recent letters he reflected on what it means to him to have lived through the atomic bombings of World War II.  Mr. Inoue is steadfastly committed to a peace position, and says he believes that the way to build world peace, is to nurture it, one relationship at a time.  Building relationships with foreigners….and particularly with Americans, has constituted a significant portion of his adult life.  And I suspect, now in retrospect, that Inoue san’s gift of friendship to me is part of his larger umbrella of relationship-building.   Somehow Mr. Inoue has concluded that the people of America are better and more well-motivated than their government may have been.  We, I hope, have learned the same lesson about the Japanese.  Mr. Inoue has learned and demonstrated a kind of forgiveness and peace-making that we might hope all the world could emulate.

Over the years, Inoue san has attended many ceramics exhibits. One of his habits has been to purchase a catalog from each of these shows and send it to me (and for those of you who have not seen Japanese “catalogs”, I should mention that they are often full-color BOOKS – some with their own ISBN numbers – and of the highest quality).  In so doing, Inoue san has increased my ceramic library to enviable proportions – a vast resource to which I’d never have had access, had it not been for his kind and unlikely friendship.  He has become a kind of teacher for me…and in the best sense, he has afforded me a course of continuing education through, not only the catalogs, but through our relationship which continues to today.

I returned to Japan in 1999 for several exhibitions of my own work.   Learning of my upcoming visit, Mr. Inoue made sure to come to the exhibitions, but also  invited me to join him at his home for several days.  He shared with me his collection of both his father’s and uncle’s ceramic works.  By the end of one evening, we had dozens of palomia-wood boxes scattered all around the receiving room….pots everywhere…stories attending almost every one of the pots….and later the pleasure of handling each pot a final time as we packed it in its box and tied its silk cord. 

And once again, Inoue had planned a handful of visits to important potters.  To my great surprise, he was able to negotiate not only a visit with a Prefectural (State) Living Treasure, but also with a current Living National Treasure, Mr. Takuo Kato.  The visit with Takuo Kato is a story all of its own – one of those magical moments that Mr. Inoue and I will always remember.  I’ll come back to that story in a few minutes.

In Japan it is very difficult for “common folk” to arrange visits with artists of this stature and recognition.  Their status confers upon them (unfortunately) a relative inaccessibility that is similar to that of famous people, everywhere. These visits, to such important ceramic artists, attests to Mr. Inoue’s commitment to our relationship.   When some of my Japanese friends learned of my visit with a Living Treasure, they were astonished.  One said, “Why I could live a whole life trying to visit him and never get there.  How did you do it?”  Well, Mr. Inoue is how I “did it”.  But I suspect that even now I do not fully comprehend the network of social obligations and indebtednesses that were “activated” by the arrangements for these visits.

This (pre-edited version) article is reprinted with expressed permission from the November 2007 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

Dick Lehman
Copyright 2007
All rights reserved

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