Carrying the Empty Cup: Reflections from 3 generations of Japanese potters within the Master/Apprentice tradition

by Dick Lehman

As my question lingered on the air, Hiromi Matsukawa drew a slow deep breath, squinted his eyes just a bit and pinched his lips together as he leaned back in his chair. The far-away look in his eyes reminded me how far I’d traveled to be sitting with him here in this rural Japanese farmhouse. An early summer breeze brought wafts of earth-smell and water and flowers to mingle with the hint of charcoal cooking fires from years past. Metronomic chopping sounds from the neighbor’s hoe signaled the end of tenacious weeds and increased chances that the premier cucumbers of the season would soon join the first-fruits eggplant that graced the table in front of us. The warm age-darkened wood of this crowded but functional kitchen offered a soothing atmosphere – the bronze walls, a repository of echoes from several generations of life and living. Steam from Matsukawa’s coffee curled and danced and spiraled up through a slant of sunlight where it paused until… exhaling, Matsukawa’s response chased the curls away.

“Perhaps I can best describe my apprenticeship to Kanzaki sensei (master) in this way. It was as if he carried an invisible pitcher in his hand – a pitcher that contained knowledge. The pitcher was always full and ready to be poured, even if the apprentices were not around. As a teacher, Kanzaki was always ready.”

“We apprentices carried invisible cups – although the size and shape of each cup was different. Kanzaki “saw” each apprentice’s cup and poured according to its size and shape. He understood the capacity of each cup: in one he poured a lot, in another he poured only little by little.”

“If the apprentice did not consume what was in the cup, the master could not pour more. If the apprentice had the cup filled from some other source, the master, likewise, would not be able to refill it. And if the apprentice stopped carrying the cup, there could be no more pourings. But if the apprentice drank from the cup, there would always be more room for the cup to be filled again.”

“To receive these pourings is the most important work of the apprentice.”

I would like to step back from this story for a moment to explain how I ended up in the middle of this interview. In past years I have become acquainted with three Japanese potters who are directly related to each other through Master/Apprenticeship relationships:

Mr. Suketoshi Matsuyama is 86 years old and was an apprentice to Mr. Kenkichi Tomimoto. (Tomimoto went on to become a “ningen kokuho” – Living National Treasure.) For his part, Matsuyama, over the course of his career, has been an educator and lecturer, as well as having built his own kiln and having his own studio with several apprentices. Matsuyama has given leadership to artist federations in Japan, has received numerous awards and commendations, has been published, and has exhibited widely in Japan, and occasionally in the U.S.

Mr. Shiho Kanzaki , age 60, was an apprentice to Mr. Matsuyama. Kanzaki is well known in Japan, and perhaps even better known in the U.S. where he built the “Kanzaki/Beamer Dream Kiln” in Pennsylvania, in collaboration with Karl Beamer. Kanzaki has his own kilns and studio in Japan, and has had many apprentices over the years. He has been published, has pioneered new “textured” works from anagama firings (See CM March 1997, “Shiho Kanzaki: Extending The Tradition”), and has a wide exhibition record in Japan, with exhibitions also in Germany and the U.S.

Mr. Hiromi Matsukawa, age 44, was an apprentice to Mr. Kanzaki. (He was also a student of Suketoshi Matsuyama while Matsuyama was teaching at Musashino Art University.) Matsukawa recently set up his studio and built his own kiln in Oodoi, near Okayama. Matsukawa is nearer the beginning of his own independent career but already has a growing exhibition record. He has extensive firing experience, and has accompanied Mr. Kanzaki to the U.S.

Because I am acquainted with all three, and because of their connections to each other, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to invite three generations of potters to reflect on their experiences as apprentices and/or masters: asking them to reflect on this system/tradition, and to think about how it has influenced the way they teach, and how they learn.

Mr. Suketoshi Matsuyama:

“As you know, I worked in Tomimoto’s studio for three years. Tomimoto invited me to live at his house. I believe that I may be the only Japanese apprentice of his who was actually living and working with him under the same roof.”

It was common, then, for apprentices to do household duties and to care for the children. So, of course, Matsuyama did some of those tasks. But he spent considerable time assisting in the studio. “I helped him as he was throwing pots: I was to make the wheel move with a belt while he was throwing. There were no electric wheels in those days.”

“While he was working he would lecture me on his craft theory. He tried to tell me everything. I remember the most important thing that he said. He told me, ‘You should not only be making things according to the old pottery traditions. Those are important. But everything comes from Nature. Nature is very important. Look there too’”

Said another way, Tomimoto may have been advising: “Look for new answers. Don’t be afraid to work in ways that are outside of what is Traditional.”

This advice was soon tested as Tomimoto received word from the civil authorities in Tokyo that they would no longer tolerate his smoky kiln. He would have to stop firing or move! This news brought to an abrupt end the apprenticeship of Matsuyama to Tomimoto. This “failure” of the traditional length of apprenticeship, however, held something good. It seemed to Tomimoto that Matsuyama had learned enough in the three years, that his apprenticeship would be considered complete. Matsuyama was now an “independent apprentice”, and it was appropriate for him to publicly refer to Tomimoto as his “master/sensei”.

Early experiences with failure and limitation seem to have been a significant contributor to Matsuyama’s philosophy. He is known as someone who searched for new answers: in his university teaching, he did not teach the separation of Eastern and Western Art as had traditionally been done; he refused to draw sharp distinctions between the artistic value of a great painting and a beautiful flower or small grasses on the side of the road. He taught “through the human and spiritual point of view” seeking “joy in all of life”, whatever life might bring (even though his own life brought much loss and failure). Matsuyama took a slightly higher profile later in his life when he addressed a particular issue of national failure/limitation: he involved himself in, and made significant contributions to some previously-intractable peace and justice issues within Japan, and between Japan and Korea..

Near the end of my visit with him, I asked him if there was anything else that he wanted to tell me. He responded: “There is yet the most important thing: it is that failure makes good. Through failure we can find ways to overcome. In failure we find new beauty.” And for the next 30 minutes, this obviously feeble octogenarian, suddenly regained the vigor and the strength and the voice of someone half his age. He moved about his studio, pulling pot after pot from storage places. “Look at this one! This wood-fired piece did not get to temperature. It was a failure! But look at what beauty occurred when I re-fired it in an electric kiln. And this one……this one I made when I did not have access to a reduction kiln….but I wanted reduction effects so I added reducing material into the electric kiln. Do you see what happened?” And just look at this one: the ash got piled up so fast on this wood-fired piece that it did not melt. I thought it was a total failure until I brushed off all the dry ash. Have you ever seen such a beautiful surface?! And it never could have happened if it had not ‘failed’. Failure helps us to see with new eyes – to discover new beauty.”

Certainly this is not the voice of a purist/traditionalist. Tomimoto’s advice had found a home in Matsuyama sensei’s spirit. “Yes, yes, my apprentices come here to learn ceramics, and they come here with purpose. And so they should see all my ways of working and all my techniques. But eventually they have to learn for themselves. Just like I do. That is the value of failure.”

In that moment I began to understand that Matsuyama had crossed over from “maker” to “receiver”. No, I am not saying that he does not possess skills to make the objects he wants to make. But he not only possesses the skills and techniques to “make”, he has acquired the eyes and spirit to “receive”. Suddenly the last three sentences of his artist statement – words I’d read repeatedly with only confusion to show for my efforts – began to make some sense to me: “Vessels cannot be made but they are born. I don’t make works but they are brought to me. A whole new life is brought to the one who holds all the experiences, but doesn’t stick to them.”*

Mr. Shiho Kanzaki:

Kanzaki’s apprenticeship to Mr. Matsuyama is unusual, by any standard. While he never spent even one month working for Mr. Matsuyama in a traditional apprenticeship role, Mr. Kanzaki has received from Mr. Matsuyama the designation of “independent apprentice”. While I made efforts to discover the details of this unusual departure from traditional assumptions about apprenticeships, I continually came up against comments like this: “Well, it is just difficult to explain.”

What did pervade and surmount these repeated comments was a growing understanding that “difficult” did not mean “embarrassing”, or “awkward”, or “complicated” – it was not difficult in that way. It seemed to be “difficult” in the same way that sharing a profound experience is difficult……the way trying to describe an “epiphany” to someone else is challenging…..the way putting words to a sacred experience is almost impossible. Whatever occurred between these two men, Kanzaki IS Matsuyama’s apprentice. And Matsuyama IS Kanzaki’s master/sensei. And the loyalty and mutual obligation that continues between master and apprentice is as ever-present between these two men – under these circumstances – as it would have been had Kanzaki spent 10 years in a traditional apprenticeship to Matsuyama.

It would be impossible to condense my hours of interviews with Kanzaki. But I’d like to point to one aspect of the discussion. Kanzaki and I had a conversation about how he continues to learn…….and how he (as a master) teaches.

Regarding learning: Kanzaki said that at the early stages of learning there might be the need for inspiration that comes from outside of oneself. When he was much younger, he would sometimes begin “intentional learning” by examining pots, or images of pots, that he found interesting. He said that he tried to look only at the things that were most stimulating to him. And then, he would view a single piece continually for two days. If after two days of constant looking, he was still fascinated with the piece, he would measure it as a piece worth learning from.

After this initial concentrated looking, Kanzaki would not look at the piece for at least one year. (And he would not try to make a piece that was inspired by this work for at least a year.) Instead he would let the image of the work, and his own imagination, begin to mature in his mind. He describes this process as “chasing the image”. The image would begin to change as it integrated into Kanzaki’s heart and soul and spirit. As the image changed, Kanzaki continued to chase it. Over time, it became his own….not so much resembling the initial form, but having been distilled into something of the spirit of the initial piece – having been flavored by his own spirit. And thereafter, as the making eventually began, the chase continued. The works themselves began to inspire a new round of chasing. “It is a matter of making works according to my own mind and heart and spirit,” Kanzaki emphasized. “If you are a ceramic artist, all your life and spirit and self can be explained through your work.”

“But how do you teach your apprentices to make these kinds of works?” I asked.

Kanzaki went on to say that he never demonstrates the making process for his apprentice: they never watch him actually make the pots. “Why?” I wondered aloud. “How can this approach teach the kind of making that you describe?”

“If I show them how to make a chawan (teabowl), maybe my apprentices will always be only tracing my work. Maybe they will not be making works that come from their own heart and spirit. Sometimes my apprentices ask me, ‘How do you do that?’ Sometimes I say, ‘I don’t know.’ In this way I help them discover for themselves. Of course they make some failures when they try to make their works. But there is much learning by trying and failing.” (We can hear the echoes of Matsuyama’s convictions about the ultimate value of learning from failures.) “And if I tell them how, from the beginning, they will not know, forever, the things they did not learn by trying. In this way, I teach them everything that I know. If I told them all the details of ‘how-to-do’, they might be successful one time. But by failing, they will have learned in a way that will cause them to be successful every time in the future. If I show them how, they know only that technique and cannot change easily. If I don’t show them how, my apprentices have to be thinking, thinking, thinking to learn many ways of working and making……then they can change their way of working easily, and make the works that come from their own heart and spirit.”

“This is the important learning: to know more than technique. In this way I open all secrets to my apprentices. To have a big heart is to open all secrets. And big hearts can make big works. And if my apprentices learn this important lesson, they will become successful at making their own works. And if they become successful, I do not hate or envy them. To envy their success would be to have a small heart…and small hearts can make only small works. No, to the contrary, I am very proud when my apprentices succeed in learning all my ‘secrets’. I will have been, for them, the ‘founder’ of this way of working.”

“I always try to teach my apprentices everything…… to teach them to go beyond all that they have been taught. To really learn my ‘techniques’ is to make their own works which go beyond my works – works which express their heart, soul and spirit.”

Mr. Hiromi Matsukawa:

Matsukawa’s apprenticeship to Kanzaki lasted eleven years: eleven years of being on-call nearly 7 days per week. Eleven years of receiving a “kozukai” (allowance/stipend/pocket money, in addition to the provisions of food, clothing and housing) of 10,000 Yen (about $100) each month. (Interestingly Matsukawa lived quite frugally over those years, and saved almost $15,000, in preparation to set up his own studio, once he became an independent apprentice.) Eleven years of learning by not-being-shown…..eleven years of carrying the empty cup that kept getting filled.

Once, near the end of Matsukawa’s apprenticeship, Kanzaki called all the apprentices together for a little quiz: “What is my most important lesson to you? What am I trying to teach you?” (What is it that I am pouring into your cup?)

Matsukawa answered, “Your lesson to us is that we are to express ourselves as fully as possible – with all our might and strength; to be ourselves, and to work within the limitations that greet us; but, through our works, to express our spirit, mind and heart, as best we can.”

“Yes!” said Kanzaki.

As time has passed, Matsukawa says that he is learning additional lessons in retrospect: He recalls the day that he and Kanzaki were firing the anagama during particularly difficult weather. They were firing in turns: Kanzaki stoking while Matsukawa watched….and vice versa. The firing was not going so well. It was Kanzaki’s turn to stoke when Mrs. Kanzaki came to the kiln to watch. Suddenly Kanzaki said to Matsukawa, “You begin stoking now.” And with that Kanzaki walked away and up the hill that was behind the kiln. Matsukawa was worried: Where is he going? Why is he leaving me here alone with this difficult kiln? How long will he be away?

After a while, Kanzaki returned with a lovely white wild lily flower in his hand. He gave the flower to his wife, and resumed stoking. Suddenly the firing began to improve.

Matsukawa wondered to himself: How/why could Kanzaki have noticed that little flower when he was in the middle of such a difficult firing? And how is it that the firing improved when he returned?

“Since then,” commented Matsukawa, “I have come to learn that it is most important to see the whole picture at all times – not just the kiln – not just the problem that is immediately in front of me. We know that we have five senses. But I think that there is perhaps at least a sixth or maybe a seventh sense. And it has to do with our sensitivity toward all of the rest of the world. Real concentration is not focusing on a single thing. Real concentration is taking in all things—the entire environment. Real concentration is seeing the lily flower in the middle of such a time as that.”

I asked Matsukawa how it is that he would describe “the full measure of success” in a master/apprentice relationship. He paused for long minutes before saying, “During my apprenticeship years, I ‘grew up’: I gained skills, I became more successful, I began to learn the most important lessons, and my cup continued to be filled. Also during this time Kanzaki grew up: he became more successful too.”

“If there is a good match between the master and the apprentice, both can grow and succeed and change: there is mutual benefit. The benefits are different for each, of course, But a poor match can inhibit the growth of both. It is a little like the relationship between a husband and a wife: while it may be difficult to put words on the exact qualities for a successful marriage, we know when it is happening successfully, and when it is not. The measure of the most successful relationships is when there is mutual benefit.”

Matsukawa continued, “I want to add one more thing. Earlier I told you, ‘To receive is the most important work of the apprentice.’ But there is another equally important job of the apprentice. After receiving, it is important that you take all that you have been given and invest it into and through your work, just as Matsuyama and Kanzaki have done. In fact, all the work I make comes through Matsuyama sensei and Kanzaki sensei. The pots were not made by me alone. Yet the works are wholly my own. But one must make work, not only to satisfy oneself….not just for self-satisfaction or self-expression. That is not enough, of course. The work must satisfy others and share happiness with them. The works dare not satisfy only the one who produced them.”

As I listened to this wonderful and endearing paradox, I could not help but believe that both are true at the same time: wholly my own, but not just for me. There is a similar and beautiful mystery in the way the true artist/apprentice looks backward, honoring the teachings of the master…..but, at the same time, looks forward, honoring the master by surpassing the master. It is the remarkable paradox of mutuality.

Matsukawa reminded me of something Matsuyama used to say: “Aging and gaining experience makes you more sensitive to nature and beauty. The older we get…….the more we grow up…..the more we are able to see real beauty – in nature, and in others.”

“The ability to continue to have your cup filled,” said Matsukawa, “depends on a sense of humility: the ability to receive even from the smallest, youngest, and least significant. If you remain ready to receive, then your cup can be filled.” Maybe the real meaning of ‘ independent’ apprentice is that you keep carrying an empty cup……waiting….expecting it to be filled: not by any single person or master, but by and through your increasing abilities to apprehend, receive, recognize, express, and embrace beauty.

Some final thoughts:

I should say, perhaps, what I am not trying to do by sharing these stories: I am not trying to form or draw any conclusions about the whole of the Japanese Master/Apprentice Tradition, based on these few specific anecdotal narratives. Such a goal could only be the aim of a far-more systematic, disciplined and far-reaching project.

What we might be able to do, however, is to make some observations about how the system/tradition served these three men, in their individual and quite-different life circumstances. We can observe that this system seems to have had a certain amount of flexibility built into it –that it was responsive and not rigid: at least in how it operated in the lives of these three. And within the flexibility there seems to have been (what Eric Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development calls) generativity: the ability to pass along, to subsequent generations, important techniques and values and vision and inspiration….in a manner that will allow them to surpass us.

But perhaps of even more importance to us, these anecdotal narratives may give us all the opportunity to reflect upon our own settings and to ask ourselves: how are we contributing toward generativity?

If I may offer just a few observations in this regard: with even a few moments of reflection, it is clear that here in North America (and I address this location, not to the exclusion of others, but only because this is my area of familiarity) we have a remarkable number of organizations and events and systems in place which may function to pass along what is important: we have national workshops like the Wooster Functional Ceramics Workshop and other similar events which focus on a specific area of the clay discipline; we host international conferences like NCECA; there are an abundance of craft centers and residencies which serve us – we could name Anderson Ranch, Arrowmont and the Archie Bray Foundation, without even exhausting the A’s; demonstration workshops by accomplished practitioners are held at colleges, universities, and professional guilds; we are resourced by College and University course-of-study opportunities, professional Ceramics Periodicals, the wonderful proliferation of books, texts, and videos in the field of ceramics; and (to the extent that they are not only focused on marketing) exhibitions…..to mention just a few.

Perhaps it is precisely because we, here in North American, have not inherited a “system” – or some other prescribed tradition– that we have this abundance of methods that hold within themselves the possibility of our being generative. Yet their mere presence does not insure that we will move, with generativity, toward the “other”. That, it seems to me, is the challenge of our living. And Matsuyama sensei’s words may indeed be the measure of whether we are meeting the challenge of living, by really “growing up”: “The older we get…….the more we grow up…..the more we are able to see real beauty – in nature, and in others.”

Dick Lehman
Copyright January 2003
All rights reserved

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the December 2003 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org