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Japan Heritage Story

The story woven by twin pottery-making districts

What is meant by the term "Japan Heritage"?

Japan boasts a diverse range of cultural traditions, customs and practices that have sprung from local history and regional settings in different parts of the country. These distinctive regional and historical legacies are celebrated today as tangible and intangible cultural properties. Set up by the Agency for Cultural Affairs in 2015, Japan Heritage is a national accreditation scheme for important cultural properties around the country that are part of the story of Japanese culture and tradition.

To date, Japan Heritage has accredited some 104 pieces of cultural heritage, including one in Ibaraki prefecture and three in Tochigi prefecture. This includes Kasamashiko—The story woven by twin pottery-making districts, which describes how the two towns of Kasama in Ibaraki prefecture and Mashiko in Tochigi prefecture are united through pottery. The Kasamashiko story was recognized by Japan Heritage in FY2020.

The sense of beauty cultivated within Kasamashiko

The Kitakanto region of Japan is home to the city of Kasama in Ibaraki prefecture and the town of Mashiko in Tochigi prefecture. The word Kasamashiko is an amalgam of the two areas that are neighbors in spirit, though separated by mountains. Since ancient times, these areas have provided plentiful resources of clay, water and timber fuel used to make sueki, a particular style of earthenware that originates from the Korean Peninsula. Striking similarities have been identified in archeological finds retrieved from kiln sites dating back to the eighth to 10th centuries, suggesting that similar pottery techniques were in use.

The Utsunomiya samurai clan emerged in the middle ages. In the 11th century they established a base in Shimotsukenokuni in present-day Tochigi prefecture, and went on to control the region encompassing Kasama and Mashiko for a period of some 500 years. In addition to the samurai connection, the Utsunomiya clan was descended from Kyoto nobility and had a significant presence in the sphere of religion and culture. Their strong religious convictions and the influence of the Kyoto background are evident in structures such as the Jizō-in temple, with a garden modeled on the Buddhist Land of Perfect Bliss, and the wooden statue of the Thousand-armed Kannon in a standing position that was carved by skilled craftsmen. The clan had a keen interest in tanka poetry and was responsible for setting up a flourishing tanka school considered to be on a par with those of Kyoto and Kamakura. This illustrates the depth of cultural activity in the region.

The cultural influences and techniques imported from Kyoto and Kamakura at that time are evident in the development of the distinctive Kasama-yaki and Mashiko-yaki pottery styles.

The birth of Kasama Pottery and Mashiko Pottery

In the late 16th century the Utsunomiya clan was summarily deprived of its territories by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, leaving the towns of Kasama and Mashiko divided. But eventually they were reunited.

The origins of the Kasama-yaki style can be traced to Hanuemon Kuno, a local government official at Kami-Hakodamura of the Kasama clan, who began making pottery at Hakodamura in the late 18th century. It is said that he was inspired by the availability of high-quality clay in the local area. Much later, in the latter half of the 19th century, Keizaburo Otsuka, who was trained at the local Hōdai-in temple in Maguromura, discovered Kasama-yaki style pottery at the Hanuemon Kuno's kiln. After mastering pottery techniques, he built his own kiln at Mashiko and began producing Mashiko-yaki pottery. In this way, the two areas that had using the same pottery technique back in the 8th century were reunited in spirit after a thousand years, forming what we now know as Kasamashiko.

The union of the Kasama-yaki and Mashiko-yaki pottery styles occurred early in the Meiji era (1868 – 1912). An agreement was drawn up that included a set of agreed standards aligning the two approaches. The cooperative approach helped to establish the region as a key pottery production center in the Kanto region. From the Meiji period into the Taisho era (1912 – 1926), the range of items expanded to include pots, bowls, mortars and other household items that were durable, inexpensive and easy to use. They soon became highly sought after in Tokyo and throughout eastern Japan.

Changes in Kasamashiko Pottery Styles

Sadly, the initial success was not to last. The combination of modernization in a range of industries and lifestyle changes in wider society saw the Kasamashiko pottery producers more than once teeter on the brink of financial ruin, and prompted a significant change of direction in the Kasama-yaki and Mashiko-yaki pottery styles.

Mashiko-yaki was the first to change. Up until then, pottery was generally viewed as something to be admired, and decorative flourishes were hence a key feature. But the early Showa era (1926 – 1989) saw the emergence of the Mingei Movement that sought to celebrate ordinary household items as works of art. At the behest of figures such as Shoji Hamada (subsequently designated a Living National Treasure), artistic elements began to appear in Mashiko-yaki pottery. By the 1940s and 1950s, the new ideas introduced by the Mingei Movement had moved beyond the ceramics industry and were embraced by dyeing, woodwork and metalwork artisans. The underlying aim was to apply traditional knowledge to a whole new range of sensible, unadorned pieces in keeping with modern sensibilities. The Shoji Hamada Memorial Mashiko Sankokan Museum provides an excellent introduction to the Mingei Movement and its guiding principle of the beauty within everyday objects. The Museum, which opened in 1977 in a section of Hamada’s home, showcases his extensive collection of ceramics, lacquerware, wood and metal pieces, furniture and textiles from all corners of the world.

The pottery industry in Kasama, meanwhile, came close to disappearing altogether during the post-war period. The government of Ibaraki Prefecture sought to revive the industry by opening up a dedicated pottery training institute where design creativity was explicitly encouraged. The institute experimented with glass film surface glazes and different types of clay and brought in leading designers as instructors. In a bid to attract talented pottery artisans from Ibaraki and beyond, the prefectural government joined forces with the private sector to set up an industrial park dedicated to ceramics along with the Kasama Artists Village. The move was a success, prompting a number of pottery artists as well as painters, sculptors and textile dyers to relocate to Kasama. Interaction with local artists proved fruitful for both sides, producing many new forms of expression and novel techniques. Most notably, the neriage technique developed by Kosei Matsui (subsequently designated a Living National Treasure), involving stacking or overlaying differently colored clays, played a major role in elevating Kasama Pottery to the level of art. The influence of the strong artisan community could be seen in the wider community. The nakamise shops in the grounds of the Kasama Inari Shrine, along with shops in temple town, were stocked with pieces of Kasama ceramic-ware. A dedicated museum of art was built on the shrine grounds to preserve and showcase historical materials on Kasama-yaki pottery."

The pursuit of creativity will result in further evolution of the Kasamashiko Pottery culture

Kasamashiko has gradually been transformed into a center of craftsmanship. Around town, art is everywhere you look. The streets are lined with graceful ceramic walls that depict the changing of the seasons, while the walking paths have wave-shaped ceramic tiles that add a sense of rhythm. The pottery studios are a commanding sight, with the artists bent over their clay and sculpting tools and the sound of spinning wheels reverberating through the room.

Once upon a time, Kasamashiko was a key production center for utilitarian everyday items for ordinary households. Today, it has been transformed into a “lifestyle” ceramics center producing a range of design-driven functional pottery pieces and endearing pop-art objects that add style and flair to the home. The local industry has survived by staying attuned to the changing needs and expectations of consumers, being prepared to take on the challenges posed by change, and championing a diversity of expression.

As a leading center for artisan ceramics, Kasamashiko has become a magnet for ceramic artists around the country, with currently more than 600 in residence. There are open workshops where visitors can watch the artists in action and get a real sense of how they work, as well as training studios where expert artisans and producers provide hands-on tuition and advice on creative ideas and techniques. Visitors will surely have a worderful experience of beautiful household craft. There are shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants, all featuring cups, bowls, crockery and household items as well as artworks and decorative pieces made by local artisans and producers that enhance the dining experience and create a wonderful atmosphere for the visitor.

In recent years, Kasamashiko has become actively involved in a wide range of public and private sector initiatives designed to bring artisans together and create connections, such as joint exhibitions involving pottery artisans from other regions; a major restoration project on the Shoji Hamada-connected climbing kiln that was badly damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami; and joint kiln firing sessions that attract pottery artists from all over the country.

Kasama-yaki and Mashiko-yaki are like siblings in the world of ceramics, sharing a common bond that has created a unique style that brings joy to countless people today.