27 June 2016

Britain & Europa ...


“Still-faced and his lips set hard, Razumov began to write. […] He wrote five lines one under the other.

                History not Theory.
                Patriotism not Internationalism.
                Evolution not Revolution.
                Direction not Destruction.
                Unity not Disruption.

He gazed at them dully.”

-          Joseph Conrad

The actions described above come immediately after the student Razumov has betrayed a man he barely knew, condemning him to certain death at the hands of the state. The young man who had come to Razumov in the middle of the night, was an idealist and an activist. He had mistaken Razumov, the bookish loner, for a kindred spirit. But Razumov lives a life which is deeply nervous to its core; isolated from the wider world around him, hence timid but centred, all he has in life are his studies and his hopes for the future. But he feels he walks a tightrope between chaos and disaster – his only focus in life is to write a prize essay, to win that silver medal and so make something of his precarious and insignificant life. Yet, like so many of Joseph Conrad’s protagonists, he is faced with a nihilistic dilemma which exposes the raw wound at his inner core. Can he risk jeopardising his future by having been, albeit inadvertently and very briefly, associated with this man; or should he dob him in to the authorities and absolve himself entirely?

I first read this book around the time the Berlin Wall came down. I was thirteen in 1989. Entranced by the nightly News bulletins on the TV. The amazing pictures of world changing events unfolding day-by-day had a profound effect upon me. But there were other, earlier events on the TV News reports when I was growing up which similarly etched themselves onto my memory. The Miners' Strikes. The Brighton Hotel Bombing in which Margaret Thatcher and the Cabinet nearly died. The Brixton Riots. The Iranian Embassy Siege. The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster. The Townsend-Thoresen Ferry Disaster. The Falklands War.  – Beyond the small parameters of my life the world sometimes appeared to be a welter of chaos and disaster waiting to descend. Perhaps because at the time I was just coming of age, the fall of the Berlin Wall was something to latch onto; it was filled with a life affirming sense of hope. I was growing up and so it would progress; naturally, the world was becoming a better place. It stood to reason. The future would be better. My generation would be the one to help make it so ... Hence my deep sense of disillusion on June 24th 2016, when I watched all of that hope finally unravel before my eyes.

Aged fifteen at the time I first read Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, I've often found myself pondering that short list which Razumov had scribbled as the product of settling his mind and fixing his resolve against his helpless sense of disillusion. An attempt to fathom his fears of the future and his place within it. His world was in the throes of reconfiguring itself. The question at the dark heart of his dilemma always seemed to me to be in which direction should he go if he is to keep moving forward? His world had seemingly stopped, suddenly stymied by forces beyond his control, he is powerless. How could he take back that control and keep his own autonomy? – The truth of the book though, is that ultimately he can’t. He is part of a bigger system and it is a system which will destroy him, even though his instinct was to play along and preserve the status quo.

Unlike Razumov, I did believe in change. It was happening every night on the TV News reports. The Iron Curtain had collapsed. Revolution seemed like a positive thing. Indeed, the peaceful Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia was now a shining beacon of what those kinds of hopes could in fact become. We really could change the whole world without the need for, or recourse to bullets and bloodshed. Hence the tenets of Razumov’s list, which on the one hand seemed perfectly rational, were now directly contradicting themselves.

I’ve mused on and puzzled over that list on-and-off for many years since. Politics in my own country is something which has always bemused me. Until I was fourteen I’d never been conscious of any other Britain than that with Margaret Thatcher at the helm. And this was probably a large factor as to why I grew up perhaps naturally looking to the alternative, the possibilities of what else Britain could be. It felt ossified to me. The elite were all living high and mighty above us in their grand castles, whilst we, the serfs, toiled and were told to be content with our lot, and all because others (our betters) knew best what was good for us. Europe at that time, like never before, now seemed to offer a strange and unfathomable, almost ethereal, political presence - presaging a 'new' future. Like the Church and Crown in former times, notionally one had the power but it also had to pay heed to the other. It was hard not to notice that Britain's high and mighty political elite was constantly snapping at its leash. Therefore Europe sometimes seemed to be a good thing. The powers-that-be in Britain were not all-powerful after all. The European Convention on Human Rights, for one example, seemed like an eminently good thing in that respect. There were outlets for good. In referring to the EU we had steam valves to ease or stop the convulsions which could oppress us. Others saw elements of this second tier distinctly differently. It curbed and curtailed, it constrained, and it cost us. There are two sides to every coin, of course. Neither one nor the other was more virtuous or ideal, nor more accurate or true. But, with the two in tandem, to my mind at least, it seemed like a beneficial thing to be a part of – and the advent of the “New Europe” seemed only to offer a greater sense of hope, which reinforced that presentiment of good things still to come. Being part of the EU leavened the balance, it was the best way forward. In unity there is strength. “Unity not disruption.”

But over time that buzz of hope gradually began to wane. I’ve watched over the intervening years how our country’s political class has slowly homogenised. The distinctions between each have been blurred as they’ve increasingly become embroiled in a never-ending game of charades. Each betraying their own shallow sense of self-interest, not realising that the bubble they operated in was becoming ever more opaque. A weird mix of public disinterest and fascination began to coalesce, making the politicians think they could deflect public scrutiny by turning Parliament into a sideshow to a larger soap opera. The day-to-day business of Westminster had dropped out of focus with a growing public disinterest, but the scandal of MP's expenses and the insidious Orwellian drama of terrorism kept the show in town, entertaining and exercising the masses. It wasn’t so much 'bread and circuses' as more like duck-houses and gung-ho reasons to go to war. All this accrued like toxic bat crap in a dark Plato's cave during the decades through which I grew up, was educated, left home, and joined the workforce. The corrosive ammonia of political 'double-speak' is why I’ve never trusted the Tories, and equally why I came to dislike Tony Blair’s New Labour. Democratic curbs on power seemed like a good thing to me. I was glad we had the EU to broaden our perspective and if need be to act as a brake upon the broader/intra-international spheres in which we operated.

Hence why Boris Johnson’s remarkable volte face on Europe in the run up to the EU Referendum reaffirmed to me all that is so blinkeredly self-indulgent and personally myopic in the conduct of our politicians. “Patriotism not Internationalism” … I’ve never been a fan of Boris. To me he has always seemed more like Bogus Johnson. And his anti-democratic actions, vetoing local council decisions preventing planning applications to demolish certain historic buildings in London, have only ever reinforced this. I never wanted Boris to be London Mayor, and I certainly don’t want to see him become Prime Minister. I don’t think for a moment he is a loveable buffoon, I think he is a deeply sinister clown (and Michael Gove is the Jabberwock).

Living in London, fate or misfortune have meant I’ve crossed paths with Boris on a couple of occasions. One time was when I was standing at a set of traffic lights, waiting to cross. I’d got there just too late and the lights were about to change, so instead of making a dash for it I resigned myself to waiting at the curb. It was then that I looked up to see "BoJo" himself poised upon his bike, with an impending hoard of red buses, black taxis, and dirt-caked lorries, all revving their engines in loud readiness behind him. Just then, as Boris’s eyes locked with mine, a simple thought suddenly occurred to me – in a flash I realised that all I had to do was extend my arm at exactly the right moment, and then … The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round ... But no sooner had this occurred to me than the dark thought was instantly dismissed. In that electric-fast moment the traffic lights changed and in a roar of traffic Boris wobbled off on his bike with his lopsided backpack and his Worzel Gummidge hair sprouting from underneath his cycling helmet. Gnashing my teeth, I watched him disappear. The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round; round and round – all – day – long. Unlike Razumov, my rational "indecision" had exceeded my will to direct action, but the thought remained – I’d had a chance and I’d decided against it. Boris lives. Because of me. It’s a personal burden of guilt which I shall have to bear forever. Especially if he really does become Prime Minister. You can blame me, or give me an OBE, whichever you prefer; but I have to live with that thought. The wheels on the bus go round and round, all day long.

As Razumov learns in the course of Under Western Eyes, nothing happens without its consequences. He duly dobs the man in, reporting him to the authorities, but having done so Razumov is no longer free. Instead he has become involved, and so, subsequently he is gently coerced into taking part. In simply deciding to ‘do the right thing’ Razumov has inadvertently embroiled himself deeper than he could ever have foreseen. Having chosen a side he is now part of a bigger game, and it’s a game which ironically ends by destroying his life – the tenuous certainty and stability which he had thought threatened by the actions of another is instead a fragile psychological thread which he, in effect, self-twangs to breaking point. In taking control, he loses control.

None of us can know or foresee the outcome of the things we do, no matter how much we might strive to shape our lives by attempting to mould the world around us. We can’t escape ourselves. We are what external influences have shaped us to be. But, where we go and how far we carry our personal baggage is up to us. If we stay true to our own direction, yet we seek to balance it with a thought for those who might not be like us, hopefully we might find a consensus which we can all agree upon and feel comfortable with. In the end, self-interest never serves anyone for very long; the communal effort always goes the furthest. That’s why, after much thought, I came up with my own version of Razumov’s list, corrected for me and my outlook on life. Thus:

Fortitude not Despair.
Humanity not Hate.
Service not Self.
Transcendence not Isolation.
Community not Conflict.

As a result of all that I’ve seen and experienced of the wider world and the diversity of people and cultures I’ve met, and the many friends I’ve made in my life so far – I’ve chosen not to believe in borders. I’m not a fan of the kind of globalisation which promotes and entrenches petty nationalisms. I’d prefer the world to be a free and open place. Where cultural diversity flourishes rather than becomes homogenised or, worse, ghettoised. Travel and the opportunity for friendship has been the single greatest thing life has given me. I have friends in many different countries, of many different faiths and cultures. Perhaps the fact that I was fortunate to grow up in one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world laid the foundation for that openness? – I’m sure it was.

My classmates and I travelled to the “New Europe” as future ambassadors for a new sense of freedom. What has happened to destroy all that hope? … Contrary to the misguided notions of all those xenophobes who thought this referendum was a means of turning back the clock to a time which never really existed, Britain’s current multi-cultural diversity is perhaps the only real and lasting boon of Empire. And therein lies the rub. Empire not the EU is the real source of immigration, yet so many of those who seem to perceive immigration as a social problem also seem to hark back to those bombastic glory days. Empire set us on this road to globalisation. One thing which I’ve learnt from all my studies is that the effects of history are always far more subtle than the majority of people like to perceive. We tend to prefer our black and white, them and us, clear-cut divides between then and now. We like to believe in fictions. Fictions of the past, and fictions of the future. We are always living in a fictional new age, without realising it is simply a present which is trying to rearrange the effects of all the ages that have gone before. The present can never cut itself off from the past – even revolution has its roots, hence evolution. The system is but a single process however it chooses to reconfigure itself. The present is the future we are seeking to shape. And that’s why we all woke up with such a shock on Friday June 24th.

I feel like not one but two generations have been robbed of their idealism today. My own generation, the generation of Jo Cox MP,  has been robbed of its promise of being able to forge that “New Europe” which we all witnessed coming into birth by means of peaceful revolution in the early 1990s. Subsequent generations have never even had a chance at forging any sense of idealism. Higher education for all - but with ridiculously steep tuition fees (not to mention ridiculous housing prices) have robbed them of that phase of growth. They’ve never even had the chance to hope for a better world ahead of them. In that single issue – promoting education by inculcating the social bondage of debt – I think the British Government (regardless of its supposed colour) cut the feet off of its future; since that moment we’ve been stumbling towards this ridiculous and needless abyss. It’s no wonder the gap between the rich and the poor, the old and the young, has suddenly widened so far. Long before the EU Referendum this country effectively began tearing itself in two. This is why we are split right down the middle. The crisis we are now in the midst of may be nothing compared to the future which we are collectively bringing down upon our heads.

We might well be deeply divided. But I think there is a common cause which we can all strive towards if we don’t solely look to ourselves, but instead if we decide to broaden our horizons, to see and honour the hopes and aspirations of those around us, because for all our differences we are all essentially the same. The carnival of crass politics needs to come to an end, it’s now time to get real and get ourselves back on track. We need to galvanise this country and come together to work our way out of this mess and restore some sense of sanity and hope. We are a unique nation, a diverse community, and our greatest strength lies in that diversity. It’s high time we began to think holistically and not atomise ourselves into ever decreasing circles of petty warring factions. I can’t help fearing that we are sailing blindly into dangerous waters. We’ve certainly cut ourselves adrift. There’s now no doubt about that. Leaving the EU is a defining moment for sure. The rest of the 21st century – for both Britain and Europe – will be shaped by this day and this decision. Growing up I have felt many things about the politics of my country. I’ve felt fear. I’ve felt rage. I’ve felt conflicted and even fought against myself, but at times I’ve felt pride and even relief; I’ve dared to hope on several occasions, but I’ve never before felt quite so despondent about the political situation as I do today ... Now, it seems like there are no more lifeboats left, just the long agony of watching them rearrange the deckchairs.

I’m proud to have been a European. And I will always remain European, as those are the values which I chose to adopt when I was growing up. Just because my country has now chosen by the slimmest of margins (2.4%) to remove that status and those rights from me, it will not change my ethos. I will remain a European, in the hope that we can all one day regain that ideal.

22 June 2016

The Buddha at Kamakura - Japan

Souvenir Series #11

Oh ye who tread the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when the heathen pray,
To Buddha at Kamakura!

Curiously, this verse about a statue in Japan begins the first chapter of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim (1901) a story set in India about a young European lad who has “gone native.”

Kimball O’Hara is the orphaned son of a dissolute Irish soldier – “a poor white of the very poorest” – adopted by a half-caste woman with an opium habit. Kim is a ragamuffin, wild and free, who befriends an old Tibetan Lama and together the unlikely pair end up on an eccentric and circuitous adventure travelling through northern India together. The young boy, Kim, is Kipling’s idealised bridge between the East and West. It is a puzzling novel which, somewhat out of joint with the time when it was penned, explores the Anglo-Indian fascinations of its author to the full – posing its readers many questions. Indeed, if “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” – what are we to make of Kipling’s idea of the Buddha at Kamakura?

At its heart much of Kipling’s work is marked by a distinct pessimism. Man lives in a state of constant war with the world around him. All is but a welter of chaos and mayhem waiting to descend. He is chiefly remembered today as 'the poet of empire' on one hand, and the father of the Jungle Book (1894) and Just So Stories (1902) on the other. As such, he is a hard literary figure to quantify. Fantastically popular in his day, he is now tainted with post-colonial guilt for being ‘the foremost poet of Victorian Imperialism.’ But he was very much a man disjointed and out of place. Born in India, but British; not an Indian, but neither wholly at home in his mother country, Britain. The curious melancholy found in his works is not as nihilistic, nor quite as intensely navel gazing, as the works of his contemporary, Joseph Conrad. But both Kipling and Conrad lived long enough to witness the Great War, an upheaval which in effect began an epochal sequence-shift of global transitions that would in time bring an end to the high era of Western imperialism.

Readers today still truly love Kipling’s Kim. Perhaps because of the author’s sympathies with arguably his most memorable character. Kim, the boy, is perhaps an attempt by Kipling to reconcile the diversity of a mixed up world of opposites. It can be read as an ecumenical plea for openness, for tolerance, for reconciliation, for magnanimity, for understanding. The book does this by skilfully offering up parallels, pairing the active and the passive; the secular and the sacred; youth and age; the individual and the community – this structure forms the moral and intellectual heart of the book. Indeed, Kim is described as the “Little Friend of all the World.” And as such, he subverts the subaltern with sympathies which weren’t exactly common for the novel’s time. Kim is actually one of us, but he’s also our key to accessing the inner lives of those who are not us – he is as much one of them, those who are the Oriental ‘other. Kim is the true child of empire in the sense that he has no particular home but rather he has the whole world for a home instead. Interestingly though, Kim is not a ‘eurasian’ child, he is specifically of European descent; but nevertheless he perhaps represents the cross-cultural unity which, Kipling perhaps suggests, we should all be seeking.

For whoso will, from Pride released,
Contemning neither man nor beast,
May hear the Soul of all the East
About him at Kamakura.

Kipling visited Kamakura in 1892.  In From Sea To Sea (1899), he rather poetically described the place as “Kamakura by the tumbling Pacific, where the great god Buddha sits and equably hears the centuries and the seas murmur in his ears.” My Rough Guide is less romantic and rather more dismissive, but I’m with Kipling – I think the place is sublime. I’ve visited the Great Buddha, the 大仏 ‘Daibutsu’, several times and it is true that it attracts a huge number of visitors, particularly on holidays and weekends when the weather is fine; but there’s something to the serenity of the statue which seems to transcend the noisy throng of people. If anything they bring a sense of life which sets the Buddha in a human context, as you clearly sense that the Buddha is truly loved. Maybe it’s something about his pose, or the calm set of his face, as well as his sheer size and his surprising age. 

Completed in 1252 and built under the orders of Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, the Daibutsu is made entirely of bronze. There is a little side door beneath the stone pedestal through which you can actually climb inside the statue. Two large louvers in the statue’s back allow light and air inside, and here you can better appreciate how the Buddha is constructed of multiple sections which have been fused together. Outside the seams have been burnished so that the surface appears smooth, continuous and unbroken. The Great Buddha was originally covered in gold leaf, traces of which can still be seen if you look carefully. Originally the Daibutsu was housed within a temple building, probably rather like the Great Buddha of Tōdai-ji at Nara (built in 1709), but a series of earthquakes and tsunamis over time repeatedly destroyed the temple yet always leaving the Great Buddha remaining seemingly unmoved. A celestial hint perhaps that the Diabutsu wanted to remain sitting out in the open, hence since 1498 he has sat in calm meditation beneath the slow rotation of the stars and the sun.

My first encounter with the Daibutsu was actually in Tokyo when I came across this rather weighty statuette on an antiques market stall by Shinobazu Pond in October 2003. Made of moulded red resin he sits 23.5 cm high, 14 cm wide, and 10 cm deep. On Christmas Day of that year I made my first visit to Kamakura, but on that occasion I never actually reached the Daibutsu. I spent the day getting there, leaving the train at Kita-Kamakura and making my way, down the valley on foot, visiting the Zen temples that line this route. But I took too long doing so and by the time I reached Kamakura itself – the Daibutsu was closed. Instead, the spiritual end to my journey found me sitting alone on the beach, watching the sunset whilst attempting to eat sushi without it being stolen by enormous dive-bombing kites!

A few years later though, I returned to see the Daibutsu properly; this time buying the small silver Buddha as a souvenir (4.5 cm high, 3.5 cm wide, 2.5 cm deep). The little silver Buddha still sits by my desk, acting as a salient reminder of the importance of contemplation and serenity; and hopefully acting as a totemic brake on the absurdly frantic pace of the modern world with all its impossible demands.

I also have a magnificent old book, entitled Wonders of the World, which was published in the early 1920s (worthy of a future Waymarks article of its own), which has an impression of the Daibutsu embossed onto its spine. Inside, under one of several entries for places in Japan, the book marvels at the science and statistics of the Daibutsu: “A description of it seems nearly sacrilegious when brought down to measures and weights. Its height is forty-nine feet and circumference ninety-seven feet two inches. The length of the face is eight feet five inches, and in the huge forehead is set a silver boss thirty pounds in weight and fifteen inches in diameter. The eyes, fashioned in pure gold, look out from lids three feet eleven inches long, whilst the ears and nose have dimensions of six feet six inches and three feet nine inches respectively. The mouth is three feet two inches from corner to corner, and on the head are eight hundred and thirty curls, nine inches high each.”  

It’s curious to note that this secular emphasis on the scientific and the statistical is paralleled at the Big Buddha on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, which was built much more recently. When I visited in 2007 there was a very assertive display of information panels in the rooms underneath the Big Buddha which proudly outlined the technical feat of construction which the huge monument embodied, also emphasising the political point that it was one of the last major beneficent civic projects completed during Hong Kong’s period of British colonial administration (which only ended in 1997), but said almost nothing about the Buddha or the religious tenets of Buddhism which such an image is usually meant to convey. This seemed like quite an oversight to me. But making this observation at the time very much put me in mind of Kipling and Kamakura. I think Kipling might well have reflected the same. An act of faith can certainly produce as well as transcend a technical marvel, but is the technical feat a more transcendent universal which crosses or unifies a cultural and temporal divide?

A tourist-show, a legend told,
A rusting bulk of bronze and gold,
So much, and scarce so much, ye hold
The meaning of Kamakura?

But when the morning prayer is prayed,
Think, ere ye pass to strife and trade,
Is God in human image made
No nearer than Kamakura?

Related Reading on Waymarks:

Wonders of the World (forthcoming)

Tian Tan – the Big Buddha of Lantau (forthcoming)

11 June 2016

A Visit to the Kilns of Arita - Japan

Souvenir Series #10

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of a remarkable tradition of specialist ceramic art in Japan. Porcelain production began centuries earlier in Korea and China, but the transfer of skills from these two regions to the ceramic artisans of Arita, on the southern island of Kyushu, soon lead to a flourishing development in Japan. By the 1640s porcelain wares from Arita were being exported to Southeast Asia, and later in that century they began to reach as far afield as Europe by means of trade through the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie, or VOC). The porcelain produced in Arita was called ‘Hizen’ or ‘Imari’ ware (伊万里焼) because it was largely shipped from the port of Imari in the former Hizen Province of northwest Kyushu.

This type of porcelain, with its distinctive patterns and designs, had a profound influence on the potteries of the West. Indeed, writing in 1882, Christopher Dresser, a noted commercial and industrial designer from Britain who toured Japan, commented that: “This ware has been so much copied in Europe that I cannot divest myself of the feeling that it lacks an Eastern aspect. But this feeling arises from the fact that patterns which characterise Arita wares have been familiar to me from childhood, and I must confess that, viewed from an art point of view, it is to me the least satisfactory of all Japanese wares.”

Dresser was travelling in Japan at the time of the ‘Satsuma Rebellion’ and so never visited Arita himself, a fact which might perhaps have also coloured his view. Dresser was treated as an honoured guest by the Emperor and toured extensively throughout central Honshu. He was a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement, and as such his work had a profound influence back in England where the ‘Anglo-Japanese style’ affected modern trends in the decorative arts and architecture during the last half of the 19th century. Dresser's dismissal notwithstanding, Arita itself remains to this day a celebrated and vibrant producer of highly sought-after and much coveted porcelain and other ceramic wares.

My Imaemon Iro Nabeshima Dish

In the Spring of 2004, whilst I was working at the Fukuoka Bijutsukan, I spent a gloriously sunny day, with the famous cherry blossoms in full bloom, exploring Arita with a curator friend who specialises in Japanese ceramics. Because of this connection I was lucky enough to see behind the scenes and learn firsthand how Arita wares are created. We visited two kilns, both of which had been established 400 years ago with the distinctive skills of ceramic production at each being handed down through the generations, from father to son. 

My Gagyu Sake Flask & Two Sake Cups

Arita lends itself both geologically and topographically to the production of porcelain. Porcelain stone was first discovered here around 1610, it is also a region of densely wooded, sloping mountains with fast flowing streams, thus providing the perfect combination of resources – porcelain stone as raw material, water for processing those materials, abundant wood for fuel supply, and the natural inclines needed to build the linked-chamber, climbing-style of kilns (noborigama 登り) required for creating and firing such ceramics.

The first kiln we visited was that of Imaizumi Imaemon XIII (1926-2001). Imaizumi learnt the porcelain with overglaze enamel technique in the Nabeshima style from his fater, Imaizumi Imaemon XII (1897-1975). This technique, known as iro-e jiki (色絵陶器) refers to the application of polychrome enamels to the surface of a ceramic vessel at different stages in its firing process. Colours such as red, yellow and green are painted with a brush onto an already glazed and fired surface which is then fired again at a lower temperature. The temperature of the re-firing is dependent on the chemical composition of the enamel colour, hence polychrome wares can be re-fired several times before they are finished. Such techniques are likely to have come to Japan from China. It was fascinating to see the care with which these enamels are painted onto the ceramics by hand, and how the colours applied transform from dull grey-green hues into bright reds and vivid greens or luminous blues after firing. Seeing inside the enormous kilns was fascinating too. Arita kilns are built utilising the steep incline of the surrounding hills which helps to regulate different temperatures as required at various points in the long stretch of the kiln. Imaizumi Imaemon XIII was designated a ‘Living National Treasure’ in 1989, and, at the time I visited, had only recently been succeeded by his son, Imaizumi Imaemon XIV (born 1963), who is continuing the Imaemon tradition. 

The Imaemon Kiln

Since the post-war recovery period of the 1950s Japan has had a system in place for recognizing certain artists and crafts-persons as ‘holders’ (hojisha 保持者) of ‘important intangible cultural property’ (jūyō mukei bunkazai 重要無形文化財). In this sense the Japanese Government seeks to support a particular craft skill, such as those found in making ceramics, textiles, lacquer, metalwork (with the exception of swordsmiths), or wood and bamboo crafts, by recognising the artist as its officially designated holder. Perhaps naturally enough, over time this concept has more popularly become associated with the individual artist rather than their particular art per se – and, as such, they are now more commonly referred to as ‘Living National Treasures’ (ningen kokuhō 人間国宝). These individuals are held in high esteem throughout Japan and much cherished in their local areas. By the time they are chosen they are often already in their fifties or sixties or older. They receive a modest stipend from the government in order to maintain their traditions and to help them pass on their skills to the subsequent generation. Yet such traditions in Japan are far from preserved in aspic. Just as the ‘Living National Treasures’ are individual people who grow and age with time so too do the crafts and techniques which they nurture during their tenure of that designation. That sense of tradition (dentō 伝統) in Japan is very much characterised by what Japan’s most famous poet, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), described as a process of ‘constancy and change’ (fueki ryūkō 不易流行). Change is the dynamic by which tradition is kept vibrant, and constancy (or continuity) is the means by which that renewal is harmonised and made most natural. Transition occurs organically through transmission, the old continually becomes something new without jarring with what has gone before.

Gagyu Gama (臥牛窯 or Gagyu Kiln) was the second kiln I visited. Yokoishi Gagyu is similarly designated an ‘Intangible Cultural Asset’ or a ‘Living Cultural Treasure’, a title bestowed by the Nagasaki Prefectural Government in 1975. He is the thirteenth master of the Gagyu kiln, which was also founded around 400 years ago. The curious name, “Gagyu,” is said to have been derived from a visual aspect of the kiln – which the feudal lord of the Hirado clan, Chinshin (Shigenobu) Matsuura, thought looked like an ox lying down on the ground (the literal meaning of the term, 臥牛 gagyu), and so the name stuck! … The Gagyu workshop practises the ‘hakeme’ (刷毛目) technique, using a red clay rich in iron which once thrown is then overlaid with thick coatings of a white slip laid by ‘hake’ (刷毛) or wide flat brushes to create a unique variety of striations. The Gagyu kiln is now the only kiln in Japan to produce ‘Utsutsugawa-Yaki’ (現川焼) wares with the hakeme technique. And Gagyu Sensei himself was a warm and welcoming host with large hands which he took pride in showing me were remarkably softened and smoothed by years of working with the soft clay – a real genuine labour of love, as he described it.

In Japan such arts and crafts are deeply cherished. A visit to any city or large town in Japan will invariably find a number of exhibitions being held devoted to one or more of these areas. Likewise, it’s possible to buy these arts and crafts works in many different outlets – I’ve seen Gagyu Sensei’s works on sale in the big department stores in Tokyo, and Imaizumi Imaemon XIV’s works can be found in a number of very prestigious museums worldwide (including the V&A and the British Museum). Television programmes, newspapers and magazines regularly focus upon the works of such ‘Living National Treasures.’ There have been strong connections with the arts and crafts movements of the West too, notably Bernard Leach’s collaborations with Yanagi Muneyoshi and Hamada Shōji in the ‘Mingei’ (Folk Crafts) movement in the early 20th century, yet the arts and crafts movements are perhaps cherished and nurtured in Japan to an extent and in a manner which is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s truly a vital part of the Japanese way of life and their outlook on the world and our place within it – it’s both an awareness and an appreciation. Pervading all things and everything we do is that fluid yet timeless essence of continuity and change.

My Imaemon Iro Nabeshima dish is: 16.9 cm diameter, 2.8 cms depth. My Gagyu sake flask and cups are: 10.7 cms height; 6.1 cms max. diameter (flask); 4 cms height, 5.5 cms max. diameter (each cup, x2); single Gagyu sake cup with blue floral design: 5.1 cm height, 5.1 cm max diameter.


An exhibition at the British Museum (Room 3, Asahi Shimbun Displays) titled Made in Japan: 400 Years of Kakiemon Porcelain from June 23rd to August 31st 2016 examines the work of another ‘Living National Treasure’ from Arita working in the Iro-e technique.

Large Bowl with Azalea decoration, made by Sakaida Kakiemon XIV (British Museum)

References & Further Reading:

‘Living Treasure’, by Tim Clark (The British Museum Magazine, Number 58, Autumn 2007)

Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan, by Nicole Rousmaniere [ed.] (London: The British Museum Press, 2007)

‘A Parade of Colours’, by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (The British Museum Magazine, Issue 78, Spring/Summer 2014)

‘Red onto Porcelain’, by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (The British Museum Magazine, Issue 84, Spring/Summer 2016)

Traditional Arts and Crafts of Japan, by Christopher Dresser (New York: Dover Publications, 1994) [First published as Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures (London: Green & Co., 1882)]

A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor (London: Allen Lane, 2010) - Object 79: Kakiemon Elephants (see here)