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Bizen ware’s recovery and revival

 

With the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Meiji Period (1868-1912) began. Bizen ware that had been at the top of the tea culture went into decline upon entering the Edo Period.

 

The momentum of its decline would pick up steam upon entering the Meiji Period, which can be argued to be the biggest crisis Bizen ware faced.

 

However, when the Meiji Period ended, Bizen ware gradually made its recovery. It began to be re-evaluated, and started to regain its shine.

 

Bizen ware hits rock bottom in the Meiji Period
Japan, for a long time, including the Edo Period, had a “closed door policy” and did not engage in trade with foreign countries. However, this policy was stricken down around the beginning of the Meiji Period and trade with foreign countries flourished. European culture flooded into Japan, and cultures that had been separate until then began to mix.

 

As this happened, ceramic wares connected with Japan’s distinct traditional culture began to hardly sell at all. Bizen ware was no exception, and roughly half a century went on where Bizen ware would not sell even when produced.

 

Inbe, Bizen City, Okayama, the center of production for Bizen ware started to see people leaving the prefecture. Others began working in agriculture or engaging in new businesses aside from Bizen ware, and the number of Bizen ware craftsmen gradually began to dwindle.

 

According to the Wake Gunshi published in 1909, the number of households engaged in the production of Bizen ware in Inbe at the time was a mere eight households. It also notes that the number of artisans was 32, including both men and women.

 

In addition, it remarked that the primary Bizen ware product of the time was piping. Construction pipes needed to circulate water were being made, rather than practical, everyday items like the tea utensils that had once been produced. The Bizen ware at this time was a far cry from the works of art known as Momoyama Bizen.

 

Even under these circumstances, while production was sparse, chatō, everyday items, and ornaments were still being made. Since there were people protecting the kilns in this time period, traditional Bizen ware still exists today.

 

To add to the downturn, the value of ceramics as a whole was generally low. Industrialization from Europe and America was adopted in this era and mass production began. When this happened, inefficient hand crafts were eliminated. Works made for industrial products were the standard, and elaborate works of art naturally became rare appearances.

 

The recovery and revival of Bizen ware
With the dawn of the Shōwa Era, traditional Japanese culture from long ago began to be reassessed. With the passage of time, the belief that “ceramics must be given a natural sense of art” started to surface. Production changed from mass production bred by industrialization to production of works of art.

 

By this time period, tea ceremony traditions had spread to the common people. There started to be a division between “crafts” made by mass-production and “works of art” that had character, and Bizen ware gradually started to be reassessed. With that, sights were set on the revival of Momoyama Bizen which had established Bizen ware’s past prosperity.

 

However, Japan’s shortage of supplies got serious with the start of World War II. Pottery artists were taken as soldiers, there was no fuel, and it was a challenge to keep fires lit in the kilns.

 

Towards the end of the war, the army came up with the idea of using Bizen ware as “a frame to put grenades in”. Since Bizen ware was durable, it was believed that it could also be used as a weapon. In fact, several hundred thousand grenades are said to have been made from Bizen ware at the time.

 

It was in this manner that Bizen ware fought to stay alive for about 100 years, from the Meiji Period to the end of World War II.

 

The renaissance of Bizen ware
With the end of the war, liveliness began to return to towns. However, in the village of Inbe, the tough times continued with the vestiges of the war lingering on, as not even fuel costs to make Bizen ware could be afforded.

 

Then, in 1950, the Cultural Asset Protection Act went into effect, which established Living National Treasures for traditional culture (Important Intangible Cultural Asset Holders). Later, in 1956, Kaneshige Tōyō was certified as a Living National Treasure, and afterwards he would be followed by several other Living National Treasures for Bizen ware.

 

Bizen ware began its recovery from the 1950’s with these changes. In 1952, there were only 24 potters involved in Bizen ware. However, with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the opening of the Bullet Train in 1972, the town of Inbe experienced a boom in Bizen ware out of nowhere.

 

A number of rookie artisans popped up in Bizen City, Okayama, jumping on the Bizen ware boom. It was so abound with good spirits at the time that people would say, “If you make Bizen ware, it will sell”. New techniques were born and novel designs were sought after as Bizen ware went through further developments.

 

With modern Bizen ware, the direction taken differs by artisan. Some direct their efforts to making tea equipment, including chatō, while others try their hand at making objects arranged to look modern.

 

Whatever it is, these artisans are working fiercely to transcend the works made in Bizen ware’s peak during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. Bizen ware continues to be expanded upon, keeping the traditions in mind, while emanating new artistic senses.


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