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Shiho Kanzaki:
  Extending the Tradition

by Dick Lehman


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 potter.

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 '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 selling."

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 '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 greatly increased.

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 the tea).

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 overtouted product.

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 him.

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.the-anagama.com) 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 1230°C 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 tradition.

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the June/July/August 1997 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

© Dick Lehman, 1997. All Rights Reserved.

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